In Brief

March / April 2018   Comments

Antibiotic resistance a global problem

The first release of surveillance data on antibiotic resistance by the World Health Organization has revealed high levels of drug resistance in 500,000 people with suspected bacterial infections in 22 high- and low-income countries. The most commonly reported antibiotic-resistant bacteria according to the report by WHO’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System were Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae, followed by Salmonella species. The report does not include data on the drug resistance of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB, as WHO tracks this topic separately.

Among patients with a suspected bloodstream infection, the proportion that had bacteria resistant to at least one of the most commonly used antibiotics ranged from zero to 82 per cent. Resistance to penicillin — used for decades worldwide to treat pneumonia — ranged from zero to 51 per cent among reporting countries. Between eight and 65 per cent of E. coli associated with urinary tract infections presented resistance to ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic commonly used to treat this condition. WHO is encouraging all countries to set up good surveillance systems for detecting drug resistance that can provide data to its global system.

Higher social services spending, healthier population

It’s logical to assume that spending more on health care is the best way to improve health, but a study published in CMAJ suggests this is not the case: a more effective way to enhance a population’s health is to spend more on social services. The study’s authors, from the University of Calgary, looked at data from nine Canadian provinces from 1981 to 2011 to see if social and health-care spending were linked to population health status. They found that a one-cent increase in social spending per dollar spent on health care was associated with improved health outcomes at the population level, in terms of potentially avoidable mortality and increased life expectancy.

Addressing the social determinants of health such as income, education or social and physical living environments through spending on social services can help address the root causes of poor health. However, spending on health care continues to take up the lion’s share of government resources. The authors argue that redirecting some funding from health to social services, that is, rearranging how government dollars are allocated without requiring additional spending, is an efficient way to improve health outcomes.

Synthesizing a safer smallpox vaccine

University of Alberta researchers have created a synthetic virus that could lead to the development of a safer smallpox vaccine. In a study published in PLOS ONE, the research team produced an infectious horsepox virus, which they synthetically reconstructed using a published genome sequence and DNA fragments manufactured entirely by chemical methods. They then showed that their synthetic horsepox virus could provide vaccine protection in mice.

The horsepox virus the researchers synthesized is the largest virus assembled to date using chemically synthesized DNA. Horsepox virus is closely related to vaccinia virus, which was used as a vaccine to eradicate human smallpox 40 years ago. Although there have been no cases of naturally occurring smallpox since 1977, it remains a concern to public health agencies. There is a need to find a safer way to provide protection against the disease: because of the toxicity of most modern smallpox vaccines, Canada and the United States discontinued immunizing whole populations. The researchers believe their methods advance the capacity to produce next-generation vaccines and offer special promise as a tool for constructing the complicated synthetic viruses that will probably be needed to treat cancer.

Oil from fish rather than flaxseed better for cancer prevention

Omega‑3 fatty acids from fish pack a stronger punch than those from flaxseed and other oils when it comes to cancer prevention, according to a study led by a University of Guelph team. The researchers reported in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry that marine-based omega‑3s are eight times more effective at inhibiting tumour development and growth than those that are plant-based. The study involved feeding different types of omega‑3s to mice with a highly aggressive form of human breast cancer. The researchers found that exposing the mice to marine-based omega‑3s reduced the size of tumours by 60 to 70 per cent and the number of tumours by 30 per cent. Higher doses of plant-based omega‑3s were required to deliver the same impact.

The lead researcher said that humans should consume two to three servings of fish a week if they want to experience the same effect as that produced by the doses given in the study. Supplements and fortified foods, such as omega‑3 eggs, can offer similar cancer prevention effects, he added.

Shedding light on why our cells store fat

We may have a new reason, in addition to vitamin D generation, to bask in a little sunshine. A study conducted by researchers primarily from the University of Alberta has shown that the fat cells that lie just beneath our skin shrink when exposed to the blue light emitted by the sun — the light we can see with our eyes. When these blue light wavelengths penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells underneath, lipid droplets get smaller and are released out of the cells. In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat.

The research team made the discovery, published in Scientific Reports, while investigating how to bioengineer fat cells to produce insulin in response to light to help people with type 1 diabetes. The lead researcher cautioned that the finding is only an initial observation and that pursuing exposure to sunlight is not a safe or recommended way to lose weight. However, he noted that the novel discovery opens up new avenues of scientific exploration that could someday lead to pharmacological or light-based treatments for obesity and other related health issues such as diabetes.

Multi-gene test a better predictor of early heart disease risk

A risk score based on multiple genetic differences predicted five times as many cases of early-onset heart disease than did standard tests for single genetic defects, according to new research published in Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine. In rare instances, high blood levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) — the so-called bad cholesterol — result from a genetic defect called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), which can be measured with current genetic tests. Patients with FH are at increased risk for early-onset heart disease. The problem with the current tests is that many patients who are at high risk do not have FH.

Investigators from Hamilton and Quebec City developed their risk score on the basis of 182 genetic differences related to heart disease. They then compared scores of 126 study participants with early-onset heart disease (30 from their clinic and 96 from a large U.K. study) and 111,283 participants from the same U.K. study who did not have this condition. The increase in genetic risk they observed with their multi-gene testing compared with single-gene testing for FH was independent of other known risk factors, suggesting that their test may be clinically useful for evaluating risk and guiding management.

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