Should pregnant women shun meat and lust?


Pregnancy advice

The claim: The Indian government is advising pregnant women to exercise, avoid eggs and meat, shun desire and lust, and hang beautiful photos in the bedroom.

Reality Check verdict: Some of the advice is good, some bad, and some downright ridiculous.

India’s Ayush ministry, which promotes traditional and alternative medicine, last week distributed a tiny 16-page booklet on Mother and Child Care to journalists. It’s three years old but it’s been dominating news since its re-release just ahead of the annual International Yoga Day, which is being celebrated on Wednesday.

Produced by the Central Council for Research in Yoga and Naturopathy, which is a part of Ayush, the booklet dishes out advice on the yoga exercises that pregnant women should – and should not – do; lists of food they should – and should not – eat; and also offers suggestions on what to read, what sort of company to keep, what sort of photos to look at, and so on and so forth.

Doctors in India say though there is merit in some of the advice, it would not be wise to follow the guidelines in their entirety.

Take for instance the advice on food.

The booklet prescribes a long list of items that pregnant and lactating women should take and that includes sprouts, lentils, fruits, leafy vegetables like spinach, dry fruits, juices and whole grain. All very good, say doctors.

Then it lists foods to be avoided – tea, coffee, sugar, spices, white flour, fried items and, rather controversially, “eggs and non-vegetarian” food.

An Indian woman makes an omelette in Kolkata

Critics say that is in keeping with India’s Hindu nationalist BJP government’s policy to promote vegetarianism, and that it’s dangerous advice in a country where malnutrition and anaemia among pregnant women has meant India has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world.

Stung by the criticism, the Ayush ministry has issued clarification saying that their suggestion that non-vegetarian food may be avoided is because “yoga and naturopathy doesn’t advocate non-vegetarian food in its practice”. They have also accused the press of “selectively” highlighting the advisory on eggs and meat while forgetting to mention the unhealthy items on the list.

It’s not just the media though, doctors too have questioned their advisory.

“As a doctor I do not see any merit in advising a pregnant woman to not eat eggs or meat. Egg is the easiest and best source of protein,” Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Sonia Naik told the BBC. “My advice would be that whoever is comfortable with whatever diet, they should continue with it.”

The advice is also at odds with the one offered by India’s health ministry on its website: “The foetus extracts iron from the mother, even if she suffers from anaemia, so iron rich foods such as meat, liver, egg, green peas, lentils, green leafy vegetables… should be encouraged to be taken by the mother.”

If many found the advisory on food unpalatable, the next few paragraphs of the booklet offered advice that seemed even more strange:

Although the Ayush ministry insists that it does not “prescribe” that “pregnant women in India” should “say no to sex after conception”, many say the words “detach… from desire and lust” appear to mean exactly that.

Although the health ministry is silent on the matter, doctors say there’s no harm in having sex during pregnancy.

In fact, Dr Naik says that “because of hormonal reasons, some pregnant women may want more sex than usual and we don’t tell them to abstain unless it’s a high-risk pregnancy”.

Indian women doing yogaImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

There is, however, one bit of advice the booklet offers on which there is general consensus – the benefits of yoga.

Although traditional wisdom believed pregnancy to be a delicate time and advised expectant mothers to rest and take it easy, over the years doctors have been advising mothers-to-be to build some form of exercise into their daily routine.

“We all live very sedentary lives now so yoga and exercise are healthy. In fact, we do recommend to women who come to us to do some form of exercise, we even hold prenatal classes for them,” Dr Naik said.

The health ministry too lists the benefits of staying physically active although it advises pregnant women to stay away from “activities in which you can get hit in the abdomen like kickboxing, soccer, basketball, or ice hockey” or “activities in which you can fall like horseback riding, downhill skiing, and gymnastics”.

Source:BBC

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US withdraws funding for United Nations Population Fund.


A mother nurses her newborn at the maternity ward of the Kailahun Government hospital on April 26, 2016, eastern Sierra Leone.

The US says it is withdrawing funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), an agency that promotes family planning in more than 150 countries.

The state department says the agency supports or participates in a programme of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilisation in China.

But the UNFPA says this is an “erroneous claim”, and that its work does not break any US laws.

In total $32.5m (£26m) in funds will be withdrawn for the 2017 financial year.

This is the first of the promised cuts to US financial contributions to the UN by the Trump administration.

The UNFPA, like other UN agencies, is funded by governments voluntarily.

In 2015, it received $979m in donations, with the US being its fourth-largest donor.

‘Erroneous claim’

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump reinstated a ban on US funding of any international organisation that provided any kind of abortion service or advice.

The state department referred to the presidential directive from January and a provision called the Kemp-Kasten Amendment in its statement on Monday.

US Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley answers questions during a press briefing at the United Nations headquartersThe US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, is overseeing potential funding cuts to the body

“This determination was made based on the fact that China’s family planning policies still involve the use of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilisation, and UNFPA partners on family planning activities with the Chinese government agency responsible for these coercive policies,” the state department said.

The UNFPA calls those claims “erroneous” and says that “all of its work promotes the rights of individuals and couples to make their own decisions, free of coercion or discrimination”.

It says its programmes have saved the lives of tens of thousands of women. Its works include:

  • Helping women and young people to access sexual and reproductive services, including family planning
  • Preventing unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions
  • Supporting maternal health
  • Programmes in the world’s “most fragile” countries, including Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia

The UN Population Fund has often been the target of conservative Republican administrations, the BBC’s Nada Tawfik in New York reports. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush withheld funding for the same reason.

The money that had been allocated to the UNFPA for the fiscal year 2017 will be “transferred and reprogrammed to the Global Health Programs account,” the state department said.

The account will be used by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to support family planning, maternal and reproductive health activities in developing countries, it added.

Source:BBC

Measles outbreak across Europe


Measles

Measles is spreading across Europe wherever immunisation coverage has dropped, the World Health Organization is warning.

The largest outbreaks are being seen in Italy and Romania.

In the first month of this year, Italy reported more than 200 cases. Romania has reported more than 3,400 cases and 17 deaths since January 2016.

Measles is highly contagious. Travel patterns mean no person or country is beyond its reach, says the WHO.

For good protection, it’s recommended that at least 95% of the population is vaccinated against the disease.

But many countries are struggling to achieve that.

Most of the measles cases have been found in countries where immunisation has dipped below this threshold and the infection is endemic – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine.

Preliminary information for February suggests that the number of new infections is rising sharply, says the WHO.

WHO regional director for Europe Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab said: “I urge all endemic countries to take urgent measures to stop transmission of measles within their borders, and all countries that have already achieved this to keep up their guard and sustain high immunisation coverage.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that between 1 February 2016 and 31 January 2017 the UK reported 575 cases of measles.

The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is available on the NHS for babies and pre-school children.

Lagging immunisation

Robb Butler, of the WHO Regional Office for Europe, says there are a number of reasons why vaccination coverage has waned in some regions.

“In some countries, like the Ukraine, there have been supply and procurement issues.”

Then there’s vaccine hesitancy. Some people are fearful of vaccination, while others are complacent or find it an inconvenience, he says.

In France, for example, people need to make an appointment with their doctor to get a prescription, go to the pharmacy to collect the vaccine and then rebook with their doctor to have the jab administered.

“We need to get to the point where we appreciate that people have busy lives and competing priorities.”

Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at Public Health England, said: “England’s uptake of MMR vaccine by five years of age has reached the WHO’s target of 95%.

“In the last year, the measles cases confirmed in England have mainly been in older adolescents and young adults with many linked to music festivals and other large public events. Individuals of any age who have not received two doses of the MMR vaccine, or those who are unsure, should speak to their GP – it’s never too late to have the vaccine and measles can still be serious in adults. We are continuing to invest in programmes which encourage uptake of the vaccine to ultimately consign measles to the history books.”

Measles

  • Unvaccinated young children are at highest risk of measles and its complications, including death
  • Measles is spread by direct contact and through the air by coughs and sneezes
  • The virus remains active and contagious on infected surfaces for up to two hours
  • The first signs of infection are usually a high fever and cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose
  • You may notice small white spots on the inside of the cheeks as well
  • After several days, a rash develops, usually on the face and neck first and then spreading to the body and limbs
  • An infected person can pass on the virus to others from four days prior to developing the skin rash to four days after the rash erupts
  • There is no treatment, but two doses of vaccine can prevent infection in the first place

Source:BBC

More than 200 migrants feared drowned in Mediterranean


More than 200 migrants are feared dead after five bodies were discovered off the Libyan coast, a Spanish aid organisation says.

Proactiva said the bodies were found floating near two capsized boats which could each hold more than 100 people.

The group’s Laura Lanuza said the five they pulled from the Mediterranean were young men who appeared to have drowned.

A body is lifted on to Proactiva Open Arm's ship Golfo Azzurro on 23 March 2017

A spokesman for Italy’s coast guard, which co-ordinates rescues, confirmed the five deaths.

The spokesman told the BBC that the coast guard could not confirm whether any boats had sunk, and said no distress calls had been received.

Ms Lanuza said at least 240 migrants may have died as the boats were often overloaded by smugglers.

“We brought on board five corpses recovered from the sea, but no lives,” the group wrote on its Facebook page.

“It is a harsh reality check of the suffering here that is invisible in Europe.”

Numbers of migrants trying to reach Europe from Libya via Italy have risen dramatically this year since the route between Turkey and Greece was effectively shut down.

The Italian coast guard said they had co-ordinated more than 40 rescue operations in the last few days.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says more than 20,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year – and some 559 people are estimated to have died or gone missing en route.

This compares with fewer than 19,000 arrivals in Italy and about 350 deaths in the first three months of 2016.

“We have yet to complete March, and we are already racing at a pace of arrivals that has exceeded anything we’ve seen before in the Mediterranean,” IOM spokesman Joel Millman said earlier this week.

“This is typical of spring, getting very busy, but it’s not typical to have the numbers be so high this early and the corresponding deaths that go with it.”

source: BBC

 UK schoolboy corrects Nasa data error


A British teenager has contacted scientists at Nasa to point out an error in a set of their own data.

A-level student Miles Soloman found that radiation sensors on the International Space Station (ISS) were recording false data.

The 17-year-old from Tapton school in Sheffield said it was “pretty cool” to email the space agency.

The correction was said to be “appreciated” by Nasa, which invited him to help analyse the problem.

“What we got given was a lot of spreadsheets, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds,” Miles told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme.

The research was part of the TimPix project from the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), which gives students across the UK the chance to work on data from the space station, looking for anomalies and patterns that might lead to further discoveries.

During UK astronaut Tim Peake’s stay on the station, detectors began recording the radiation levels on the ISS.

“I went straight to the bottom of the list and I went for the lowest bits of energy there were,” Miles explained.

Miles’s teacher and head of physics, James O’Neill, said: “We were all discussing the data but he just suddenly perked up in one of the sessions and went ‘why does it say there’s -1 energy here?'”

What Miles had noticed was that when nothing hit the detector, a negative reading was being recorded.

But you cannot get negative energy. So Miles and Mr O’Neill contacted Nasa.

“It’s pretty cool”, Miles said. “You can tell your friends, I just emailed Nasa and they’re looking at the graphs that I’ve made.”

It turned out that Miles had noticed something no-one else had – including the Nasa experts.

Nasa said it was aware of the error, but believed it was only happening once or twice a year.

Miles had found it was actually happening multiple times a day.

the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth

Prof Larry Pinksy, from the University of Houston, told Radio 4: “My colleagues at Nasa thought they had cleaned that up.

“This underscores – I think – one of the values of the IRIS projects in all fields with big data. I’m sure there are interesting things the students can find that professionals don’t have time to do.”

The professor – who works with Nasa on radiation monitors – said the correction was “appreciated more so than it being embarrassing”.

What do Miles’ friends think of his discovery?

“They obviously think I’m a nerd,” the sixth-former said. “It’s really a mixture of jealousy and boredom when I tell them all the details.”

He added: “I’m not trying to prove Nasa wrong. I want to work with them and learn from them.”

The director of IRIS, Prof Becky Parker, said this sort of “expansion of real science in the classroom” could attract more young people to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

She added: “IRIS brings real scientific research into the hands of students no matter their background or the context of the school. The experience inspires them to become the next generation of scientists.”

Source: BBC

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?

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

Cheques to be paid in via smartphone


woman photographs cheque
Account holders in the US can already pay in cheques via mobile phones
Plans have been announced to allow bank customers to pay cheques into their account by taking photos on their smartphones.

Rather than go to the bank in person, customers will be able to photograph the cheque, and send it electronically.

The government is to launch a consultation on the idea, with a view to making the necessary legal changes.

The technology will also allow cheques to be cleared in two days, rather than the six it takes at the moment.

Banks say the new transfer method will be more convenient, and more secure.

“Moving into a virtual world will actually create a more secure customer experience than the paper experience today,” said Antony Jenkins, the chief executive of Barclays.

Such photos would not be stored on the phone itself, so there should be no security risk if a phone was stolen.

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antony jenkins

I think people are going into branches less and less, particularly as a result of mobile banking”

Antony JenkinsChief executive, Barclays

Similar technology was introduced in the United States nine years ago, following the attack on the World Trade Centre.

A new law known as Check 21 was passed, to enable banks to process cheques electronically, rather than having to transport paper versions across the country.

Cheques

The government believes a change in the law in the UK would also promote the continuing use of cheques.

The UK Payments Council was originally planning to abolish all cheque payments by 2018, but was forced to change its mind after public opposition.

“We want to see more innovation so that customers see the benefits of new technologies,” said Sajid Javid, the financial secretary to the Treasury.

“We want cheques to have a crucial role in the ongoing success of the UK,” he added.

In 2012, 10% of all payments by individuals were made by cheque, and 25% of payments by businesses.

The industry says most younger account-holders already use electronic systems of payment, and rarely use cheques.

However all customers will still be able to pay in cheques by posting them to their bank, or by visiting their bank directly.

phone and cheque
Greater use of banking technology is hastening branch closures

Branch closures

Barclays is planning to launch a pilot programme for paying in cheques via phone from April 2014.

It hopes to launch a service for all its customers later in the year.

But the new technology is likely to raise further questions about the size of the branch network, as customers turn to banking via PCs and mobiles.

Last month Barclays announced 1700 further job losses in its High Street branches, as a direct result of mobile technology.

In the year to July 2013 it closed 37 branches, and it has hinted at more closures to come.

“I think people are going into branches less and less, particularly as a result of mobile banking, and that’s going to accelerate the process,” Antony Jenkins told the BBC.

The bank is in the process of moving eight of its branches into stores operated by Asda.

A spokesman said customers would always be able to pay their cheques in at a branch if they wanted to.

Young teens’ weight terror ‘common’


Scales
About 10% of 13-year-old girls are “terrified” about putting on weight, the first UK study looking for warning signs of eating disorders suggests.

Doctors said they were “worried” by the high degree of weight fixation found in 13-year-old girls, years before eating disorders typically start.

Researchers say it might be possible to stop full eating disorders developing.

Their findings, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, came from interviews with the parents of 7,082 13-year-olds.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia, tend to start in the mid-teenage years, although they can begin before then.

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For me the results were particularly worrying”

Dr Nadia Micali

The study, by University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, looked at the years before those disorders tend to start.

Interviews with the parents of 7,082 13-year-old schoolchildren showed:

  • Nearly 12% of girls and 5% of boys were “terrified” by the thought of getting fat
  • 52% of girls and a third of boys said they were “a little worried” about getting fat
  • One in three girls and one in five boys were “distressed” by their body shape
  • 26% of girls and 15% of boys had “eating disorder behaviours” such as fasting
  • Some habits, such as uncontrolled bingeing, were linked to higher weight two years later

One of the researchers, Dr Nadia Micali, told the BBC she was surprised children were so concerned about weight at such a young age.

“For me the results were particularly worrying, I wouldn’t have thought they’d be so common at this age.

“Part of me thinks it’s a shame we didn’t ask earlier, we don’t know when this behaviour starts.

“Quite a large proportion will develop full-blown eating disorders, maybe more than half.”

However, she said there might be an opportunity to help children before they develop an eating disorder if a reliable set of warning signs could be developed for parents and teachers.

In a statement the eating disorder charity Beat said it was an interesting and important study.

“This is the first time a study like this has been carried out so we have nothing to compare it to and therefore don’t know if the problem is increasing or getting worse.

“However it is striking and worrying how many young people had concerns about their weight from such a young age.

“It does not mean that they will all go on to develop eating disorders, but they could be tempted by unhealthy ways to control their weight and shape.”

The findings came through data collected from the Children of the 90s study.

Bullying

A separate analysis of those children, by a team at the University of Warwick, suggested bullying was linked to an increased risk of psychotic experiences, such as hearing voices, and paranoia.

Lead researcher Prof Dieter Wolke said: “We want to eradicate the myth that bullying at a young age could be viewed as a harmless rite of passage that everyone goes through – it casts a long shadow over a person’s life and can have serious consequences for mental health.

“It strengthens on the evidence base that reducing bullying in childhood could substantially reduce mental health problems.

“The benefit to society would be huge, but of course, the greatest benefit would be to the individual.”

Dinosaur impact ‘sent life to Mars’


Artist's impression of Chicxulub impact
The Chicxulub impact sparked a mass extinction – but did it send life hurtling into space?

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs may have catapulted life to Mars and the moons of Jupiter, US researchers say.

They calculated how many Earth rocks big enough to shelter life were ejected by asteroids in the last 3.5bn years.

The Chicxulub impact was strong enough to fire chunks of debris all the way to Europa, they write in Astrobiology.

Thousands of potentially life-bearing rocks also made it to Mars, which may once have been habitable, they add.

“We find that rock capable of carrying life has likely transferred from both Earth and Mars to all of the terrestrial planets in the solar system and Jupiter,” says lead author Rachel Worth, of Penn State University.

A Hitchhikers GuideEarth rocks big enough* to support life made it to:

  • Venus 26,000,000 rocks
  • Mercury 730,000
  • Mars 360,000
  • Jupiter 83,000
  • Saturn 14,000
  • Io 10
  • Europa 6
  • Titan 4
  • Callisto 1

*3m diameter or larger.

Source: Worth et al, Astrobiology

“Any missions to search for life on Titan or the moons of Jupiter will have to consider whether biological material is of independent origin, or another branch in Earth’s family tree.”

Panspermia – the idea that organisms can “hitchhike” around the solar system on comets and debris from meteor strikes – has long fascinated astronomers.

But thanks to advances in computing, they are now able to simulate these journeys – and follow potential stowaways as they hitch around the Solar System.

In this new study, researchers first estimated the number of rocks bigger than 3m ejected from Earth by major impacts.

Europa
Could life be swimming in the oceans of Europa?

Three metres is the minimum they think necessary to shield microbes from the Sun’s radiation over a journey lasting up to 10 million years.

They then mapped the likely fate of these voyagers. Many simply hung around in Earth orbit, or were slowly drawn back down.

Others were pulled into the Sun, or sling-shotted out of the Solar System entirely.

Yet a small but significant number made it all the way to alien worlds which might welcome life. “Enough that it matters,” Ms Worth told BBC News.

About six rocks even made it as far as Europa, a satellite of Jupiter with a liquid ocean covered in an icy crust.

“Even using conservative, realistic estimates… it’s still possible that organisms could be swimming around out there in the oceans of Europa,” she said.

Travel to Mars was much more common. About 360,000 large rocks took a ride to the Red Planet, courtesy of historical asteroid impacts.

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I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars. It seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms made it”

Rachel Worth Penn State University

Big bang theory

Perhaps the most famous of these impacts was at Chicxulub in Mexico about 66 million years ago – when an object the size of a small city collided with Earth.

The impact has been blamed for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, triggering volcanic eruptions and wildfires which choked the planet with smoke and dust.

It also launched about 70 billion kg of rock into space – 20,000kg of which could have reached Europa. And the chances that a rock big enough to harbour life arrived are “better than 50/50”, researchers estimate.

But could living organisms actually survive these epic trips?

“I’d be surprised if life hasn’t gotten to Mars,” Ms Worth told BBC News.

“It’s beyond the scope of our study. But it seems reasonable that at some point some Earth organisms have made it over there.”

Early Mars - artist's impression
Early Mars is thought to have been a muddy, watery world

It has been shown that tiny creatures can withstand the harsh environment of space. And bacterial spores can be revived after hundreds of millions of years in a dormant state.

Continue reading the main story

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I sometimes joke we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from the Chicxulub impact”

Prof Jay Melosh Purdue University

But even if a hardy microbe did stow away for all those millennia, it might simply burn up on arrival, or land in inhospitable terrain.

The most habitable places in range of Earth are Europa, Mars and Titan – but while all three have likely held water, it may not have been on offer to visitors.

Europa’s oceans are capped by a crust of ice that may be impenetrably thick.

“But it appears regions of the ice sheet sometimes break into large chunks separated by liquid water, which later refreezes,” Ms Worth said.

“Any meteorites lying on top of the ice sheet in a region when this occurs would stand a chance of falling through.

“Additionally, the moons are thought to have been significantly warmer in the not-too-distant past.”

Moon fossils

On Mars, there is little evidence of flowing water during the last 3.5bn years – the likeliest window for Earth life to arrive.

Bacillus subtilis endospores
The first space travellers? Bacterial endospores can survive for millions of years

But what if the reverse trip took place?

The early Martian atmosphere appears to have been warm and wet – prime conditions for the development of life.

And if Martian microbes ever did exist, transfer to Earth is “highly probable” due to the heavy traffic of meteorites between our planets, Ms Worth told BBC News.

“Billions have fallen on Earth from Mars since the dawn of our planetary system. It is even possible that life on Earth originated on Mars.”

While her team are not the first to calculate that panspermia is possible, their 10-million-year simulation is the most extended yet, said astrobiologist Prof Jay Melosh, of Purdue University.

“The study strongly reinforces the conclusion that, once large impacts eject material from the surface of a planet such as the Earth or Mars, the ejected debris easily finds its way from one planet to another,” he told BBC News.

“The Chicxulub impact itself might not have been a good candidate because it occurred in the ocean (50 to 500m deep water) and, while it might have ejected a few sea-surface creatures, like ammonites, into space, it would not likely have ejected solid rocks.

“I sometimes joke that we might find ammonite shells on the Moon from that event.

“But other large impacts on the Earth may indeed have ejected rocks into interplanetary space.”

Another independent expert on panspermia, Mauricio Reyes-Ruiz of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the new findings were “very significant”.

“The fact such different pathways exist for the interchange of material between Earth and bodies in the Solar System suggests that if life is ever found, it may very well turn out to be our very, very distant relatives,” he said.