Soft drinks targeted by new government health campaign


Soft drinks

Families are being urged to ditch sugary drinks and cut down on saturated fat in the latest advertising blitz by England‘s public health watchdog.

Public Health England said a family of four could reduce their sugar intake by three-quarters of a 1kg bag of sugar in just one month by swapping fizzy drinks for healthier alternatives.

Changing whole milk for semi-skimmed milk could mean the average family cutting down their fat intake by a third of a pint over four weeks, the group said.

The advertising campaign, Smart Swaps, is seeking to capitalise on the millions of Britons who begin the new year with health-conscious resolutions after the festive period.

“Swapping like-for-like food in our diet could help cut out surprising levels of saturated fat, sugar and ultimately calories without having to give up the kinds of food we like,” said Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England.

He added: “We all eat too much saturated fat and sugar, which can increase our calorie intake. Together this increases our risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers.”

Families will be offered vouchers to encourage them to avoid sugary cereals and swap butter and certain cheeses for reduced-fat alternatives.

However, the move brought a backlash from the soft drinks industry. The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) claimed its products were being shown in a misleading and “deliberately negative” way.

Gavin Partington, director general of the BSDA, said: “It is particularly frustrating for an industry which has been working with the Department of Health to promote healthier behaviours, reformulate products so they are lower in calories, make available smaller pack sizes and focus more of its marketing investment on low- and no-calorie options.”

He took issue with the depiction in the adverts of a two-litre bottle of pop, claimed to contain the equivalent of 52 sugar cubes.

“It is also disappointing to see our products depicted by the campaign in such a deliberately negative way,” he said. “That two-litre bottle shown in the ad is not intended to be consumed by an individual, certainly not by one child. Such an extreme depiction of the consumption of soft drinks undermines the key message of the campaign, namely that it’s very easy to make a smart swap to a no-calorie, diet soft drink.”

The Children’s Food Campaign welcomed the initiative but said it would be undermined unless supermarkets made healthier foods more affordable and easier to find in stores. The body also said that vouchers offered as part of the Public Health England scheme might not be cheaper than buying own-brand healthy foods.

In a separate study released on Thursday, Cancer Research UK said tripling the tax on cigarettes would cut smoking by a third and prevent 200m premature deaths by the end of this century.

The charity called on governments across the world to raise tax on tobacco, a move it said would encourage smokers to quit and help stop young people taking up the habit.

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Worldwide, around half a billion children and adults under the age of 35 are already – or soon will be – smokers, and many will be hooked on tobacco for life. So there’s an urgent need for governments to find ways to stop people starting and to help smokers give up.

“This immensely important study demonstrates that tobacco taxes are a hugely powerful lever, and potentially a triple win: reducing the numbers of people who smoke and who die from their addiction, reducing the healthcare burden and costs associated with smoking and yet, at the same time, increasing government income.”

Meanwhile the cost of joining a gym this year is continuing to rise, according to a Labour survey of 95 local authorities.

Nearly two-thirds of council-run fitness centres have increased the cost of annual membership in the last three years, some by up to £100, the survey found. A yearly gym pass now costs £368 on average, an increase of £15 since 2010, according to the research.

Luciana Berger MP, the shadow public health minister, said there was a desperate need to make leisure facilities affordable for all. “Millions of people across the country will want to kickstart 2014 by getting fitter and more active. There is a real risk however that many people will be put off from keeping to their new year’s resolutions by soaring gym charges and David Cameron’s failure to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.”

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A science news preview of 2014


Rosetta The Rosetta mission‘s Philae lander will try to ride a comet on its sweep into the inner Solar System

As the new year begins, the BBC’s science and environment journalists look ahead to what we can expect to see in the headlines in 2014.

David Shukman, science editor

With the fastest supercomputer in the world and a rover exploring the Moon, Chinese science is enjoying an unstoppable rise. And it’s backed by spending on a scale that would turn most Western scientists green with envy.

One leading British scientist likens China to the United States in the late 20th Century with a large population, huge resources and boundless energy – and “look what America produced in terms of science”. So watch out for advances in everything from cloning to robotics to spaceflight.

The scramble for energy, exacerbated by Chinese growth, is bound to throw up further controversy in the coming year. Russia’s arrest of Greenpeace activists and Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices are both reflections of mounting tension over the future of fuel.

The Arctic is only one of several frontlines: Africa is emerging as a major new source of oil and gas as well. And, as prices rise for the most-needed resources, expect the launch of a new gold rush in a realm many would regard as too precious to touch: the ocean floor.

Jonathan Amos, science correspondent

There is little doubt in my mind where the excitement is going to come from in 2014 in the realm of space exploration. It is Europe’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It is 10 years since the Esa probe was dispatched to rendezvous with the 4km-wide hunk of ice, but the long engagement is very nearly over and the marriage ceremony is about to begin.

Rosetta will be woken from hibernation on 20 January. And after a period of instrument check-out and some rendezvous manoeuvres, the spacecraft should find itself in the vicinity of 67P in August. Mapping and remote-sensing will then be followed by an audacious attempt to put a lander, called Philae, on the comet’s surface in November.

This will occur some 450 million km from the Sun. Assuming Philae gets down successfully, it will try to ride 67P on its sweep into the inner Solar System.

How long Philae can withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to our star is anyone’s guess. But the little lander will try to hang on for as long as possible with the aid of ice screws and harpoons. This is one space rodeo you won’t want to miss.

Matt McGrath, environment correspondent

The next 12 months promise to be critical in shaping the global response to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2013 reported that humans were the “dominant cause” of global warming, will bring out two key reports in 2014.

The first, in March, will be on the impacts of rising temperatures, and the second, in April, will be on mitigation – how the world can limit or reduce the gases that are responsible for warming.

The contents of these reports are likely to significantly impact the political response. World leaders have been asked to attend a summit convened by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in September.

Mr Ban is expecting them to bring firm pledges of emissions cuts to the gathering.

If that happens, then it may re-invigorate the slumbering UN body tasked with negotiating a global climate deal which faces substantial hurdles in getting agreement on the scale of emissions cuts and the finance to cope with climate damage.

The hope, and I stress the word hope, is that when the negotiators gather in Paris towards the end of 2015, they will be finalising the details of a significant, legally binding agreement.

But insiders say that won’t happen unless everything is “pre-cooked” this year.

Otherwise we will see “climate souffle” in Paris – sweet, well made, but ultimately full of hot air.

Rebecca Morelle, science correspondent, BBC World Service

2014 could be the year when scientists shed a spotlight on dark matter. Mysterious particles of this dark “stuff” are thought to make up about a quarter of the Universe. But clear-cut evidence has proven elusive.

Lux detector
Scientists are hoping to witness the rare occasions when dark matter particles bump into regular matter

Early next year, the Large Underground Xenon detector (LUX), which is located at the bottom of a gold mine in South Dakota, will be switched on again. The results from its first phase have confirmed that it’s the most powerful experiment of its kind – and during its next 300-day run it is set to probe deeper than ever before in the hunt for this enigmatic substance.

The prime candidates for dark matter are Weakly Interacting Massive Particles – or WIMPs. Most of the time, these are thought to stream through the Universe without interacting with anything. But scientists think that on very rare occasions these ghost-like WIMPs do bump into regular matter – and it’s these collisions that LUX will aim to detect.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $2bn experiment that is positioned on the International Space Station, is also searching – in a distinct way. The first results, announced in April 2013, were encouraging. AMS detected promising numbers of electrons and their anti-matter counterparts known as positrons that are thought to shower deep space as dark matter particles annihilate each other – but the evidence was not conclusive.

James Morgan, science reporter

Every Christmas, children dream of the new hyper-promoted toy or gadget, and science reporters are no different. 3D printing – last year’s stocking filler – has become this year’s brussel sprouts. In 2014, it’s all about 4D printing – objects that “make themselves” by changing shape after they’ve been printed.

The coming year is also the 60th anniversary of Cern. The world’s biggest physics lab will be celebrating six decades of pan-European endeavour with several special events, beginning in July in Paris at Unesco. But in terms of actual physics, there are unlikely to be any blockbuster results popping out of the sexagenarian institute. That’s because the LHC remains offline until 2015 – undergoing a refit that will double its power. Supersymmetry and dark matter will likely remain mysterious for a little longer, though there could be a surprise or two sprung at the ICHEP conference in Valencia in July.

2014 is also the International Year of Crystallography – a new campaign to raise awareness of the wonderful technique that has revealed the secrets of DNA and drug discovery. It will also promote collaboration among scientists in Africa and Asia. And finally, this wouldn’t be a “preview of the next big thing” without graphene. The “wonder-material” (a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon) has been championed for use in condoms and microscopes. And for its next trick… graphene will allow bendable touchscreens on smartphones, according to Physics World.

Mark Kinver, environment reporter

Maize (AFP) Food for thought: There is appetite for a consensus on food security but not for GM technology

Since 1996, there has been a growing appetite for the concept of food security. Over the years, researchers have sought to gain a clearer insight into the social, environmental and economic drivers that shape our access to one of the most fundamental ingredients of life. Now, their efforts are bearing fruit. This year saw the first international food security science conference being held in the Netherlands, and one of the title themes of the 2015 Expo in Milan is Feeding the Planet.

On 23 September 2014, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will convene a high-level UN Climate Summit and is inviting world leaders to bring “big ideas”. Expect to see food security among them. When it comes to delivering future food security, there is a consensus among experts that the world needs a wide range of technologies and techniques to feed the changing tastes of a growing population.

But mention GM crops, and that consensus soon breaks down. While the rest of the world grows more and more genetically modified food crops, the EU remains a fallow landscape for the technology. But this politically unappetising issue can no longer be pushed to the side of the EU’s policy plate and it will be on the menu again during 2014.

Roger Harrabin, Environment analyst

In theory this should be a big year for climate change, with three more reports from the UN Panel, amplified by Ban Ki-moon’s heads of governments meeting, all as a precursor to the annual climate conference in Peru.

It will be the last conference before the big 2015 Paris meeting at which nations have promised at last to stop arguing and solve the climate problem; really… no really.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that the mismatch between science and policy will magically shrink over the year, however many reports there may be. The pause in warming remains a puzzle and as the UN Panel’s documents become more rigorously cautious, opponents of climate action will seize on uncertainties as a reason for doing nothing. So don’t hold your breath on CO2.

One aspect of that troublesome gas is likely to feature more prominently in 2014 – the UN will also highlight ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of CO2 emissions by the seas.

The oceans generally are likely to receive a much higher profile. The Economist magazine will hold a “summit” on the seas and so will John Kerry, the US Secretary of State. There will be focus on over-fishing, warming, dead zones, plastics and pollution of all sorts in the UN meta-review of ocean science, probably at the end of the year.

The Arctic will loom large too after Russian prosecutors arguably did Greenpeace a publicity favour by jailing its campaigners. Shell hopes to re-start drilling off Alaska in the summer and should expect more coverage than during their last venture.

Sitting out hunger pangs on a five-day fast


Kale chips

Scientists in California are conducting a clinical trial to test a diet that may help people lose weight while also boosting resistance to some diseases. One of their guinea pigs was the BBC’s Peter Bowes, who reports here on his experience of fasting for five days per month.

It’s been tried on mice and now it’s being tried on humans – a diet that involves multiple five-day cycles on an extremely low-calorie diet. Each of those five days is tough, but the upside is that for much of the time – about 25 days per month – people eat normally, although not excessively.

The low-calorie period includes small amounts of food to minimise the negative effects of a total fast. Designed by scientists to provide a minimum level of essential vitamins and minerals, the diet consists of:

  • vegetable-based soups
  • energy bars
  • energy drinks
  • dried kale snacks
  • chamomile tea
“Start Quote

I was so hungry I would practically lick the soup bowl and shake the last kale crumb from its bag”

These meals are extremely low in calories – about 1,000 on day one and 500 for each of the next four days.

With the exception of water and black coffee, nothing else is consumed.

The limited selection of food (with no choice of flavours) means that everything has to be eaten. It’s monotonous… but at least it makes meal planning easy for five days.

“The reason why diets don’t work is because they are very complicated and people have an interpretation problem,” says Dr Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California (USC) Longevity Institute.

Spinach soup
Spinach soup: Dinner, three nights out of five

“The reason I think these diets work is because you have no interpretation. You either do it or you don’t do it. And if you do it you’re going to get the effect.”

Dr Longo established a company to manufacture the food, based on research in his department at USC. He has shown in mice that restricting calories leads to them living longer with less risk of developing cancer.

The food used during the trial is the result of years of experimenting. The idea is to develop a diet that leads to positive cellular changes of the same kind seen in mice that have been made to fast.

“It turned out to be a low-protein, low-sugar-and-carbohydrate diet, but a high-nourishment diet,” explains Longo.

“We wanted it to be all natural. We didn’t want to have chemicals in there and did not want to have anything that is associated with problems – diseases. Every component has to be checked and tested. It’s no different to a drug.”

Peter Bowes

Peter Bowes

The popularity of intermittent fasting has grown over the past year or so. The 5:2 diet, which involves dramatically reducing your calorific intake on certain days of the week, is one example. But more clinical data is needed to confirm the benefits of such regimes. Doctors are generally reluctant to recommend them.

Longo stresses that the experimental food could not be made in your kitchen.

But it is a big leap from laboratory mice to human beings. Restricting the diets of rodents is easy, but people have minds of their own – and face the culinary temptations of the modern world.

I knew the diet cycles would be difficult.

I love to eat. I enjoy a big, healthy breakfast, exercise a lot and – left to my own devices – snack all day before digging in to a hearty evening meal. At 51, I am in good shape. I weigh 80kg (12 stone 8lbs / 176lbs) but like most middle-aged men, I struggle with belly fat. I have never tried any kind of fasting regime before.

The diet meals were better than I expected – at least initially. I was so hungry I would practically lick the soup bowl and shake the last kale crumb from its bag, to tide me over to the next feeding time.

Note: it is no longer lunch or dinner. It is a feeding opportunity. It is certainly not a social occasion.

The diet

Day 1 (1,000-1,100 cals) Day 2 (500 cals) Day 3 (500 cals) Day 4 (500 cals) Day 5 (500 cals)
Morning snack Chamomile tea + bar Chamomile tea + bar Chamomile tea + bar Chamomile tea + bar Chamomile tea + bar
Lunch Carrot soup + dried kale Carrot soup + drink Beetroot soup + drink Carrot soup + drink Carrot soup + drink
Afternoon snack Tea + energy bar Tea Tea Tea Tea
Dinner Beetroot soup + dried kale Spinach soup + dried kale Spinach soup + dried kale Beetroot soup + dried kale Spinach soup + dried kale

Headaches, a typical side effect of fasting, started on Day 2 but they waned within 24 hours, leaving me in a state of heightened alertness. During the day – and especially in the morning – I was more alert and productive. Hunger pangs came and went – it was just a matter of sitting them out. But they did go.

Fasting feedback

Alex de la Cruz and Angelica Compos

Alex de la Cruz: I downright hated it. I actually detested it. The first day I had a splitting headache – it felt like someone had punched me in the head. And the weight loss was really dramatic – 4.5kg (10lbs) in the first five days. I was tempted to give up, but I didn’t. After that everything started getting better.

Angelica Campos: There were some positives in being able to be more clear-minded, especially in the morning. I tended to feel worse as the day progressed… I don’t want to do it again, but if someone were to tell me that yes, science proves that it has long-term benefits, I think I would. I need to see proof that it really is effective.

By the evening – especially on Day 5, I was exhausted. Tiredness set in early. But I made it through the five days – for three cycles – without deviating from the regime. I lost an average of 3kg (6.6lbs) during each cycle, but regained the weight afterwards.

All participants keep a diary, noting their body weight, daily temperature reading, meals and mood. The feedback – positive and negative – is vital to the integrity of the study, which is partly designed to establish whether the diet could work in the real world.

For me, and for all but about 5% of the volunteers who have completed all three cycles, the diet was do-able – although opinions vary about the taste of the food.

“It is not an experience for the faint of heart. It was extremely difficult because the little bit of food that you’re offered gets very tiresome as time wears on,” says Angelica Campos, aged 28.

“I had to isolate myself because my family were constantly offering me food. They thought I was crazy.”

She would not want to go through the experience again, but says she would if it were proven to have long-term benefits.

Her boyfriend, Alex de la Cruz, aged 29, says the fasting made him very tired, but when he woke up he was “as alert as could be”.

“My overriding memory of the experience is that the food was horrible, but the results were totally positive,” he says.

Energy bar

Lead investigator Dr Min Wei says that for some people the diet is a greater wrench than for others, depending on their lifestyle. The absence of carbohydrates and desserts, can hit some people hard, for example, and also the restriction to black coffee alone. “We are fairly strict,” he says. “We recommend people stick to the regimen. If people enjoy special coffee – lattes for example – they won’t be able to enjoy them.”

Data from the volunteers is still being collected and analysed. The early signs are that the diet is safe and could be adopted by most healthy people, providing they are suitably motivated to endure the periods of hunger.

But the full effect can only be measured over the long term. Initial changes in the body may not tell the full story.

“Having dietary factors influence your body sometimes takes years and years,” explains Dr Lawrence Piro, a cancer specialist at the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute.

This particular trial now moves into the laboratory. Based on blood tests, has anything changed inside my body to suggest extreme dieting improves my chances of avoiding the diseases of old age?

Does intermittent fasting work?


Food boxes

If losing weight is on your January wish-list, you’re not alone – it’s one of the most common New Year resolutions. But diets can be hard to stick to at any time of year. In the first of a three-part series, the BBC’s Peter Bowes steeled himself for the task by joining a clinical trial for an experimental fasting diet.

Knowing which diet advice to follow can be perplexing and frustrating. Hardly a day goes by without news of a new scientific study. Fad diets come and go.

Sales of high-protein shakes have surged in recent years, but the scientific evidence suggests that most people are consuming too much protein. Low-fat diets were once all the rage; now they seem to have fallen out of favour.

“People do get confused,” says Dr Lawrence Piro, CEO and President of The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute, a private medical facility in Los Angeles.

The trial

Peter Bowes
  • Why? To find out if a specially designed calorie-restricted diet for a short time is feasible and safe
  • Where? The School of Gerontology, University of Southern California (gerontology is the study of biological and psychological aspects of ageing)
  • Who? 64 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 65 (no pregnant women) – no payment for taking part
  • What? Three five-day cycles over three months, when volunteers ate only low-calorie food supplied by the research team, followed by a two-to-three month control period on a “normal” diet

People receive mixed messages about what to eat, Piro acknowledges.

“Eat fish and don’t eat red meat,” he says, listing some of the medical advice he’s seen doing the rounds in recent years. “But then don’t eat farm-raised fish because it may be too high in various minerals that are toxic. So now don’t eat any fish at all and switch to vegetables – be vegan…”

The popularity of intermittent fasting has grown over the past year or so. The 5:2 diet, which involves dramatically reducing your calorific intake on certain days of the week, is one example.

But more clinical data is needed to confirm the benefits of such regimes. Doctors are generally reluctant to recommend them. The UK’s National Health Service questions how sustainable intermittent fasting is in the long term.

Curious about the scientific research that goes into devising a new diet, I decided to volunteer as a subject in a five-month clinical trial at the University of Southern California (USC).

As a human guinea pig, I signed up to test a strict diet regime and subject myself to a battery of clinical tests to evaluate its effect on my body.

It involved surviving, for five consecutive days, on a narrow range of foods that contained as little as 500 calories per day – about a quarter of the average person’s consumption. There was to be no cheating, no falling off the wagon and no treats. It was an opportunity to be part of study that may help scientists unravel the complex relationship between food and the human body.

Intermittent fasting (NHS Choices)

Little is known about possible side effects as no systematic attempt has been made to study this issue. Anecdotal reports of effects include:

  • difficulties sleeping
  • bad breath (a known problem with low-carbohydrate diets)
  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • dehydration
  • daytime sleepiness

The clinical trial, which is still ongoing, is designed to investigate the feasibility, safety, potential benefits and psychological changes associated with a calorie-restricted diet. It is based on previous experiments, at a number of institutions, which have shown that mice live longer and healthier lives if their food intake is cut by up to 30%.

Research at USC’s Longevity Institute has also shown, in rodents, that short-term fasting before chemotherapy can prevent some of the toxic side-effects of the treatment. There is a growing body of opinion that fasting has a potent, beneficial effect on organisms and that it is potentially extendable to humans.

But it is still unlikely that a doctor would put a patient on a restricted diet because of the potential risk of nutritional deficiencies. Also, fasting regimes are tough to follow through, for most of us at least.

This is why the current USC diet does not involve a complete fast and is designed to be repeated in short bursts over a number of months.

Michael Mosley on Horizon (2012)Calorie restriction – eating well but not much – is one of the few things that has been shown to extend life expectancy, at least in animals. We’ve known since the 1930s that mice put on a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet live far longer.

“I don’t think there is a solid data-supported study to show that cycles of low-calorie diet will actually have a beneficial effect, so that’s what we are trying to achieve,” explains Dr Min Wei, the study’s lead investigator.

There was an enthusiastic response from members of the public when the university appealed for volunteers.

“California people are especially conscious of diet, exercise and health,” says Wei, “especially in the environment where obesity is a huge problem, as well as diabetes and cancer.”

Since fasting can be dangerous, I sought the advice of my family doctor, who confirmed that it was “medically safe” for me to participate.

Conflict of interest?The study is funded by USC and sponsored by L-Nutra, a spin-off company from USC, which makes the food. The company’s founder, Dr Valter Longo, is the Director of USC’s Longevity Institute.

He is not allowed to have anything to do with the collection and analysis of data during the study, although under the university’s ethics rules, he is permitted to be a “co-investigator”.

“The conflict of interest is handled above of me (by USC’s Conflict of Interest Review Committee) meaning that every year I get reviewed as a founder of the company and as a professor,” says Longo.

The company produces food, designed in a clinical setting, which can be relied upon for a clinical trial.

“Our idea is to figure this out scientifically and clinically here at USC and then let the company sell it for a fairly reasonable price,” Longo says.

The food, during the period of the restricted diet, was designed to be highly nutritious. It consisted of plant-based soups, kale chips, a nutty bar, a herbal tea and an energy drink. The total number of calories, in five days, was about 2,500 – a little more than the average person consumes in one day. No additional food was allowed. For the rest of the month we were allowed a normal diet. The regime was repeated three times, followed by a control period, when we could eat anything.

During the test and control periods, blood samples were taken; body weight and composition (bone density and body fat) were measured using a Dexa (dual X-ray absorptiometry) machine. Brain activity was recorded during one-hour MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) sessions, to determine whether the diet had any impact on cognitive abilities.

The diet had unexpected consequences for everyone, including extreme hunger in some cases – and an aversion to the limited amount of food in others. On the positive side, volunteers, including myself, reported a heightened feeling of mental well-being.

Our stomachs may have been grumbling but we experienced a surprising sense of alertness and sharpness of the mind.

Cannabis goes on sale in Colorado


David Martinez, manager of 3D Cannabis Center in Denver, on 31 December 2013
Shops selling cannabis have been preparing for a huge influx of customers on their first day of trading

The US state of Colorado is making history by becoming the first to allow stores to sell cannabis.

As many as 30 stores around the state are expected to start selling the drug for recreational purposes from 1 January, dubbed Green Wednesday.

Colorado, along with Washington state, voted to legalise the use and possession of cannabis for people over the age of 21 in November 2012.

Washington is not expected to allow the sale of it until later in 2014.

Colorado and Washington are among 20 states to have approved marijuana use for medical purposes. The drug is still illegal under federal law.

‘Who knows?’

Store owners had stocked up, prepared celebrations and hired extra security in preparation for their opening on Green Wednesday.

“Start Quote

It’s almost the worst of both worlds”

Kevin Sabet Smart Approaches to Marijuana

Under the new law, cannabis will be sold like alcohol. Residents will be able to buy up to one ounce, while those from out of the state can purchase up to a quarter of an ounce.

Cannabis can only be smoked on private premises, with the permission of the owners.

The sale of the drug will be taxed in the same way as alcohol, and state officials have said they expected it to raise millions – the first $40m of which will be used for school construction, The Denver Post reports.

It was not clear exactly how many shops were expected to open on New Year’s Day, though around 30 were listed by The Denver Post.

A total of 136 stores have been given licenses to sell marijuana. Most of the shops are based in Denver. Some communities elsewhere in Colorado have exercised their right not to have the stores.

Supporters of legalising cannabis have praised Colorado’s move.

Rachel Gillette, of the Colorado branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the state “has found an exit strategy for the failed drug war and I hope other states will follow our lead”.

But critics say it sends the wrong message to the nation’s youth and fear it will lead to serious public health and social problems.

“There will still need to be a black market to serve people who are ineligible to buy on a legal market, especially kids,” said Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It’s almost the worst of both worlds.”

Angelina’s mastectomy… and other medical stories of 2013


With a baby cured of HIV and breakthroughs in dementia, it’s been a year where two of the great scourges of our time have been put on the back foot.

Meanwhile a vision of the future of medicine has emerged, with scientists growing miniature organs -including brains – and performing the first steps of human cloning.

BBC health and science reporter James Gallagher reviews the year in medical science.

HIV baby cure

HIV virus

One of the most remarkable stories of the year was a baby girl in the US seemingly being “cured” of HIV.

Her mother had an uncontrolled HIV infection and doctors suspected the baby would be infected too, so they decided to give antiretroviral drugs at birth.

Normally the drugs hold the virus in check, but the very early treatment seems to have prevented HIV taking hold.

The baby is now three, has been off drugs for more than a year and has no sign of infection.

However, as this analysis explains, a cure for HIV is still a distant prospect. Yet there have been other developments – two patients have been taken off their HIV drugs after bone-marrow transplants seemed to clear the virus.

HIV was once thought to be impossible to cure; now there is real optimism in the field.

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Post-menopausal pregnancy

Dr Kazuhiro Kawamura
Dr Kazuhiro Kawamura of the St Marianna University medical school holding the newborn

Going through an early-menopause used to be seen as the end of a woman’s reproductive life.

But this year a baby was born after doctors, in the US and Japan, developed a technique to “reawaken” the ovaries of women who had a very early menopause.

They removed a woman’s ovaries, activated them in the laboratory and re-implanted fragments of ovarian tissue.

Any eggs produced were then taken and used during normal IVF.

Fertility experts described the findings as a “potential game-changer”.

However, things will not change for women going through the menopause at a normal age as poor egg quality will still be a major obstacle.

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Angelina and Andy

Angelina Jolie and Andrew Marr

The cult of celebrity catapulted two diseases into the public eye this year – breast cancer and strokes.

Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had a double mastectomy after her doctors said she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime.

She has a mutation in her DNA, called BRCA1, which greatly increases the odds of both breast and ovarian cancer.

In a newspaper article she said: “I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity…for any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options.”

BBC presenter Andrew Marr had a stroke after an intensive rowing machine session and a year of “heavily overworking”.

It put a spotlight on the standard of care for stroke patients and raised the question why do healthy people have strokes?

He says he’s “lucky to be alive” and is back presenting, although the stroke has affected “the whole left hand side of my body”.

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Lab-grown mini organs

Cross-section of miniature human brains termed cerebral organoids

This purple and green image is of a very special human brain which was grown from skin cells entirely in a laboratory.

The pea-sized “cerebral organoid” is similar to the brain of a nine-week-old foetus.

It has distinct brain regions such as the cerebral cortex, the retina, and an early hippocampus, which would be heavily involved in memory in a fully developed adult brain.

Scientists hope the organoids, which are not capable of thought, will transform the understanding of the development of the brain and neurological disorders.

And it’s not just brains. Japanese researchers said they were “gobsmacked” at making tiny functioning livers in the same way.

They think transplanting thousands of these liver buds could help to reverse liver failure.

On a larger scale, researchers have made full-sized kidneys for rats which were able to make urine.

Their vision is to take a donor kidney and strip it of all its old cells to leave a honeycomb-like scaffold, which would then be used to build a new kidney out of a patient’s own cells.

Expect more from the “grow-your-own organs” field in the coming years.

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Dementia on the back foot

Brain
Loss of tissue in a demented brain compared with a healthy one

Understanding the billions of neurons which make up the human brain, one of the most complex structures in the universe, is one of the greatest challenges in medical science.

This year marked a major breakthrough in defeating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

A team of UK Medical Research Council scientists used a chemical to stop the death of brain cells, in a living brain, that would have otherwise died due to a neurodegenerative disease.

This is a first and a significant discovery. One prominent scientist said this moment would “be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s disease”.

Dementia has also become a major global priority in 2013 amid fears it is rapidly becoming the health and social care problem of a generation.

The G8 group of nations have pledge to fund research aimed at curing the disease by 2025.

It is just one aspect of a flood of money entering brain research.

President Obama has dedicated millions of dollars for mapping the connections in the brain and in Europe the billion pound Human Brain Project to simulate the organ using computers is now under way.

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Human cloning

Row of babies

Human cloning was used to produce early embryos which a group of US scientists described as a “significant step” for medicine.

It has been a long struggle to reach this stage, the same technique was used to produce Dolly the sheep way back in 1996.

No-one is considering attempting to let a cloned embryo develop.

Instead the cloned embryos were used as a source of stem cells, which can make new heart muscle, bone, brain tissue or any other type of cell in the body.

However, it is an ethically charged field of research and there have been calls for a ban.

Meanwhile, the first trial of stem cells produced from a patient’s own body has been approved by the Japanese government.

Scientists will use the cells to attempt to treat a form of blindness – age-related macular degeneration.

And a new era of regenerative medicine could be opened up by transforming tissue inside a living animal back to an embryonic state.

It’s an inherently dangerous thing to do; the tissues became cancerous in the experiments, but if it was controlled then it could be used to heal the body.

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A new role for sleep and body clock resets

Brain in a head

Scientists have found a new explanation for why we sleep – for a spot of housework.

As well as being involved in fixing memories and learning, it seems the brain uses sleep to wash away the waste toxins built up during a hard day’s thinking.

They think failing to clear some toxic proteins may play a role in brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s diseases.

Meanwhile, a separate group of researchers think it may be possible to slow the decline in memory and learning as we age by tackling poor sleep.

And there is no doubt about the impact a poor night’s sleep has on the whole body. The activity of hundreds of genes was altered when people’s sleep was cut to less than six hours a day for a week.

Of course you could blame the moon after a “lunar influence” on sleeping patterns was discovered. It showed that the extra light from a full moon makes it harder to sleep.

There may be good news on the horizon for shift workers and jet setters who will be intimately familiar with the pains of having a body clock out of sync with the world around them.

A team at Kyoto University has found the body clock’s “reset button” inside the brain.

They tested a drug which let the body clock rapidly adjust to new timezones, instead of taking days. It brings the prospect of drugs to avoid jet lag much closer.

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Deadly infections new and old

Coronavirus

Two new viruses have attracted global attention and concern this year.

A new bird flu, H7N9, emerged in China infecting more than 130 people and causing 45 deaths.

However, most were confined to the beginning of the year when the virus first emerged. Closing live poultry markets in affected areas has largely cut the spread of the virus.

And Saudi Arabia is at the centre of an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. The animal source of the virus has not yet been confirmed, although camels are a likely culprit.

Meanwhile, polio has returned to war-torn Syria for the first time in 14 years.

And in the UK, an outbreak of measles infected 1,200 people – as a result of a drop in vaccination during the completely unfounded MMR-autism scare a decade earlier. The World Health Organization warned Europe risked failing to meet its pledge to eliminate measles by 2015.

Odds, ends and an impotent James Bond

The mobile app in action: Scanning the back of the eye

There were many interesting one-off stories this year too – some serious, some not…

A modified smartphone is being tested in Kenya to see if it can prevent blindness in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Doctors warned that antibiotics were running out and could lead to an “antibiotic apocalypse”.

Scientists claimed a milestone moment for cancer after finding 21 major mutations behind that accounted for 97% of the most common cancers.

There was a shift in understanding psychiatric disorders when it was shown autism, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia all shared several genetic risk factors.

A surgical knife which can sniff out tumours was developed to improve cancer surgery.

The iKnife

New teeth have been grown out of the most unlikely of sources, human urine.

A treatment to banish bald spots is a step closer after human hair was grown in the laboratory, however, there are still engineering challenges to get the hairs the same shape, size and as long as before.

Another thing to blame your parents and grandparents for…behaviour can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory.

A wheelchair was controlled with a pierced tongue.

The UK’s first hand transplant took place in Leeds while in China a severed hand was kept alive on an ankle.

Brain scans showed babies could decipher speech as early as three months before birth.

Lullabies may help sick children by reducing pain and improving their wellbeing.

And finally… James Bond’s sexual prowess was seriously questioned with doctors describing him as an “impotent drunk”.

James Bond
Doctors say James Bond, played here by actor Daniel Craig, has a drink problem

Multi-hazard warning system tested


Flash flood
The system was used to forecast flash floods in California

An early warning system for earthquakes, tsunamis and floods is being trialled in the US.

Scientists are using GPS technology and other sensors to detect the impending threat of natural disasters.

The network is installed in Southern California and has already helped scientists to alert emergency services to the risk of flash floods.

Yehuda Bock from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography said: “This can help to mitigate threats to public safety.”

And added: “It means real-time information can be made available.”

Ground motion

The minutes and even seconds before a natural disaster strikes are crucial.

Early warning systems can help emergency services to prepare and respond more effectively and can provide vital information for the public.

“Start Quote

We can measure displacements that occur during an earthquake”

Dr Yehuda Bock Scripps Institute of Oceanography

In California, researchers have been testing a prototype network for a range of hazards.

The system builds on existing networks of GPS stations, which use satellite technology to make very precise measurements of any ground movement.

On these, they have installed seismic sensors and other instruments that can track changes in weather conditions.

Dr Bock said: “By combining the data from the GPS with the data from these other sensors, we can measure displacements that occur during an earthquake or another event.”

He added that the system could detect the tremors that appear seconds before a large earthquake strikes, and accurately assess its magnitude and whether it is likely to generate a tsunami.

The GPS sensors and the meteorological instruments also help the team to monitor the water vapour in the air.

Dr Angelyn Moore, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “It might be surprising that we are using GPS to monitor weather hazards, but GPS is a weather instrument.

“Fundamentally, a GPS station is measuring the time it takes a signal to travel from the GPS satellites to the receiving stations on the ground, and that travel time is modified by the amount of moisture in the air.

“Whenever we measure the position of a GPS station, we are also measuring the amount of water vapour above it.”

Through this, the team is able to track in real time how air moisture is changing and whether heavy rain is likely.

GPS Station
GPS stations like this one are fitted with small seismic and meteorological sensors

In the summer, the researchers used the system to forecast rainfall in San Diego.

Traditionally, some of this data comes from weather balloons.

“But there are only two sites at the southern border of California and these are about 150 miles apart. And the weather balloon launches are also infrequent: in San Diego it’s only every 12 hours,” said Dr Moore.

“In between those many hours between the weather balloon launches, we were able to use the GPS to monitor how the water vapour was changing.”

With this real-time information, the team was able to issue flash flood alerts.

Dr Moore added: “This was verified – there were quite a few reports of flooding.”

The sensing technology is being combined with communication advances to make sure the information is widely distributed, fast.

Dr Mark Jackson, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s National Weather Service, said: “When a forecaster presses that button to issue that warning, it then goes to the police or fire person that’s responsible for taking action to protect life and property almost instantaneously.

“We also have the public who now on their smartphones can receive warnings directly that say there is a warning in effect for your area.”

The team said the technology was inexpensive, and systems like it could be rolled out around the world.

The findings were presented at the recent American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Viewpoint: Human evolution, from tree to braid


If one human evolution paper published in 2013 sticks in my mind above all others, it has to be the wonderful report in the 18 October issue of the journal Science.

The article in question described the beautiful fifth skull from Dmanisi in Georgia. Most commentators and colleagues were full of praise, but controversy soon reared its ugly head.

D4500

What was, in my view, a logical conclusion reached by the authors was too much for some researchers to take.

The conclusion of the Dmanisi study was that the variation in skull shape and morphology observed in this small sample, derived from a single population of Homo erectus, matched the entire variation observed among African fossils ascribed to three species – H. erectus, H. habilis and H. rudolfensis.

The five highly variable Dmanisi fossils belonged to a single population of H. erectus, so how could we argue any longer that similar variation among spatially and temporally widely distributed fossils in Africa reflected differences between species? They all had to be the same species.

I have been advocating that the morphological differences observed within fossils typically ascribed to Homo sapiens (the so-called modern humans) and the Neanderthals fall within the variation observable in a single species.

It was not surprising to find that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred, a clear expectation of the biological species concept.

But most people were surprised with that particular discovery, as indeed they were with the fifth skull and many other recent discoveries, for example the “Hobbit” from the Indonesian island of Flores.

It seems that almost every other discovery in palaeoanthropology is reported as a surprise. I wonder when the penny will drop: when we have five pieces of a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, every new bit that we add is likely to change the picture.

Did we really think that having just a minuscule residue of our long and diverse past was enough for us to tell humanity’s story?

If the fossils of 1.8 or so million years ago and those of the more recent Neanderthal-modern human era were all part of a single, morphologically diverse, species with a wide geographical range, what is there to suggest that it would have been any different in the intervening periods?

Probably not so different if we take the latest finds from the Altai Mountains in Siberia into account. Denisova Cave has produced yet another surprise, revealing that, not only was there gene flow between Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, but that a fourth player was also involved in the gene-exchange game.

The identity of the fourth player remains unknown but it was an ancient lineage that had been separate for probably over a million years. H. erectus seems a likely candidate. Whatever the name we choose to give this mystery lineage, what these results show is that gene flow was possible not just among contemporaries but also between ancient and more modern lineages.

Pit of Bones
A femur recovered from the famed “Pit of Bones” site in Spain yielded 400,000-year-old DNA

Just to show how little we really know of the human story, another genetic surprise has confounded palaeoanthropologists. Scientists succeeded in extracting the most ancient mitochondrial DNA so far, from the Sima de los Huesos site in Atapuerca, Spain.

The morphology of these well-known Middle Pleistocene (approximately 400,000 years old) fossils have long been thought to represent a lineage leading to the Neanderthals.

When the results came in they were actually closer to the 40,000 year-old Denisovans from Siberia. We can speculate on the result but others have offered enough alternatives for me to not to have to add to them.

The conclusion that I derive takes me back to Dmanisi: We have built a picture of our evolution based on the morphology of fossils and it was wrong.

We just cannot place so much taxonomic weight on a handful of skulls when we know how plastic – or easily changeable – skull shape is in humans. And our paradigms must also change.

The Panel of Hands at El Castillo Cave, Spain
Old assumptions are being challenged as new thinking emerges

Some time ago we replaced a linear view of our evolution by one represented by a branching tree. It is now time to replace it with that of an interwoven plexus of genetic lineages that branch out and fuse once again with the passage of time.

This means, of course, that we must abandon, once and for all, views of modern human superiority over archaic (ancient) humans. The terms “archaic” and “modern” lose all meaning as do concepts of modern human replacement of all other lineages.

It also releases us from the deep-rooted shackles that have sought to link human evolution with stone tool-making technological stages – the Stone Ages – even when we have known that these have overlapped with each other for half-a-million years in some instances.

The world of our biological and cultural evolution was far too fluid for us to constrain it into a few stages linked by transitions.

The challenge must now be to try and learn as much as we can of the detail. We have to flesh out the genetic information and this is where archaeology comes into the picture. We may never know how the Denisovans earned a living, after all we have mere fragments of their anatomy at our disposal, let alone other populations that we may not even be aware of.

What we can do is try to understand the spectrum of potential responses of human populations to different environmental conditions and how culture has intervened in these relationships. The Neanderthals will be central to our understanding of the possibilities because they have been so well studied.

A recent paper, for example, supports the view that Neanderthals at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France intentionally buried their dead which contrasts with reports of cannibalistic behaviour not far away at El Sidron in northern Spain.

Here we have two very different behavioural patterns within Neanderthals. Similarly, modern humans in south-western Europe painted in cave walls for a limited period but many contemporaries did not. Some Neanderthals did it in a completely different way it seems, by selecting raptor feathers of particular colours. Rather than focus on differences between modern humans and Neanderthals, what the examples show is the range of possibilities open to humans (Neanderthals included) in different circumstances.

The future of human origins research will need to focus along three axes:

  • further genetic research to clarify the relationship of lineages and the history of humans;
  • research using new technology on old archaeological sites, as at La Chapelle; and
  • research at sites that currently retain huge potential for new discoveries.

Sites in the latter category are few and far between. In Europe at least, many were excavated during the last century but there are some outstanding examples remaining. Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves in Gibraltar, where I work, are among those because they span over 100,000 years of occupation and are veritable repositories of data.

There is another dimension to this story. It seems that the global community is coming round to recognising the value of key sites that document human evolution.

In 2012, the caves on Mount Carmel were inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List and the UK Government will be putting Gorham’s and associated caves on the Rock of Gibraltar forward for similar status in January 2015. It is recognition of the value of these caves as archives of the way of life and the environments of people long gone but who are very much a part of our story.

Prof Clive Finlayson is director of the Gibraltar Museum and author of the book The Improbable Primate.

Gorham's Cave The UK government is to seek World Heritage status for Gorham’s and associated caves on the Rock

A science news preview of 2014


A science news preview of 2014 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25301485

Malaria threat to Galapagos birds


Blue-footed booby
The blue-footed booby was first extensively studied by Charles Darwin on his visit to the Galapagos

The Galapagos Islands may have inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but scientists fear some of the species he observed may not be capable of adapting to new environmental challenges.

Experts say the introduction of foreign parasites to the islands and the increase in frequency of El Nino events, which scientists recently attributed to global warming, could push bird species in the Galapagos towards extinction.

“The situation is precarious,” says Dr Patricia Parker, Endowed Professor of Zoological Studies at the University of Missouri St Louis (UMSL), “particularly for species such as the Galapagos penguin, which live in very small populations.”

The Galapagos Islands

  • The Galapagos Islands comprise a volcanic archipelago west of Ecuador
  • Together the islands have an area of just over 8,000 sq km (3,000 sq mi)
  • They are well known for a huge number of species that are unique to the islands (endemic)
  • Charles Darwin studied the islands’ wildlife during the voyage of the Beagle
  • His observations made a significant contribution to his theory of evolution by natural selection

Foreign parasites have contributed to mass extinctions in Hawaii, which has lost up to 30% of its endemic birds.

Hitherto, the Galapagos Islands have avoided a similar fate. But Dr Parker, who contributed towards a new report about avian malaria on the archipelago, believes it could be just a matter of time before the virus claims its first species.

The disease is already prevalent in the yellow warbler and Galapagos penguin, which has an estimated population of just 3,000 individuals.

The parasite that causes avian malaria (Plasmodium) requires passage through the digestive and circulatory systems of a biting insect in order to reproduce.

“The insect is considered the primary host of the parasite,” explains Dr Parker.

Suitable hosts

However, for the Plasmodium parasite to complete its life-cycle it must then be transmitted to a suitable bird host through the saliva of the biting insect.

“The parasite then goes through a massive multiplication phase in the liver of the animal before entering the bloodstream,” says Dr Parker. “From there, the next biting insect that takes a blood meal picks them up.”

But not all birds are competent hosts.

“We are trying to identify which species of mosquito is responsible for vectoring it and which bird species is the reservoir for this parasite,” says Dr Parker.

After studying 3,726 samples from 22 endemic birds, Dr Parker and her team – scientists from UMSL, Galapagos National Park, Charles Darwin Foundation and Saint Louis Zoo – believe the parasite is not completing its life-cycle in endemic birds.

Yellow warbler The disease is already prevalent in the yellow warbler

“We don’t think Galapagos natives are part of the transmission cycle,” says Dr Parker. “They become infected but they don’t actually allow the parasite to complete its life-cycle.”

Attention has now shifted to three introduced birds; the domesticated fowl, the cattle egret and the smooth-billed ani, a species thought to have been brought here by farmers because it removes ticks from cattle.

“If we discover that one of these introduced species is responsible for the transmission of this potentially dangerous parasite then the Galapagos National Park would consider whether they want to mount an eradication effort,” says Dr Parker.

“There is a sense of urgency about this because it’s only a matter of time until one of the endemic birds will become a successful host – all host and parasite relationships evolve.”

Scientists suspect an introduced mosquito is acting as the primary host and, if this is confirmed, authorities will also consider eradicating the insect.

The Galapagos National Park has experience exterminating foreign species, having successfully eliminated disease-spreading rock pigeons.

El Nino year

However, preserving native species could prove trickier; scientists say global warming is likely to increase the frequency of El Nino events, which can have a devastating effect on Galapagos wildlife.

“In the El Nino events of 1982 and 1996 the population of penguins declined to approximately 300 and 400 individuals respectively,” says Gustavo Jimenez, wildlife veterinarian at the Charles Darwin Foundation.

“The increased frequency of El Nino could mean there is not enough time for the recovery of the species that are affected, which would lead not only to their populations reaching critically low numbers but possibly extinction.”

Galapagos penguin An increased frequency of El Nino events and avian malaria could consign the Galapagos penguin to history

During El Nino, the Humboldt Current, which brings cold, nutrient-rich waters from Antarctica, is reversed.

“Instead what hits the islands are warm equatorial waters,” explains Dr Parker. “So the birds that rely on marine life; their numbers plummet.”

Scientists fear future El Nino events coupled with an outbreak of avian malaria could consign species such as the Galapagos penguin and flightless cormorant to the history books.

“It is possible that in a situation where there are multiple environmental stresses – less food, strange weather conditions and so on – these Plasmodium infections might be much more damaging than they appear to be under more benign circumstances,” says Dr Parker.

On the edge

Concern is also mounting for the critically endangered mangrove finch, which is being ravaged by an introduced fly called Philornis downsi.

“In 2013, 37% of mangrove finch nestlings were killed by Philornis downsi,” says conservationist Francesca Cunninghame, of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

“This is a loss which cannot be sustained in a population as reduced as that of the mangrove finch – in the same year, there were only 14 breeding pairs.”

Philornis downsi colonises nests and finds its way into the nasal cavities of fledglings, where it can cause beak deformation and blood loss leading to death.

It was first identified in the 1990s and recent tests indicate that fumigating nests with permethrin, an insecticide which is not harmful to birds, can dramatically improve the health of a brood.

Scientists are also experimenting with captive breeding programmes in an attempt to boost numbers.

“The Galapagos has had zero bird extinctions and we want to keep it that way,” says Dr Parker. “We need to find answers now while the potential exists to do something about it – before Galapagos becomes another Hawaii.”