Each year, we at The Scientist devote a handful of our monthly issues to life-science topics that are so interesting or fast-moving that a feature alone would not suffice. This year, these included aging, HIV, hearing, and obesity. Read on for recaps of TS’s special issues, 2015.
And there’s no way researchers will understand it all unless they are more open with their data, argues University College London and EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute postdoc Matthias Ziehm in an opinion piece on the need to share annotated longevity data. One question that the field is anxious to answer: How do we stay healthy as we live longer?
The key players in animal hearing are the inner ear hair cells, which in mammals are arranged in a spiral organ of Corti. Exposure to certain medications, such as the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, can kill these cells, causing hearing loss, though sometimes the cells can regenerate.
Understanding these processes should support the development of new therapies for hearing loss, including improved ear and brain stem implants. Challenges remain, however—notably, the incredibly intricate system that is failing when someone loses his hearing, writes hearing researcher Bernd Fritzsch of the University of Iowa’s Center on Aging in an opinion article: “Piecing together such a complex and delicate organ is not as simple as growing new cells in a petri dish.”
In addition to the elevated blood pressure and high levels of blood sugar and cholesterol that many overweight and obese people suffer, these individuals are also at increased risk for more deadly diseases such as cancer. “This year, obesity overtook smoking as the top preventable cause of cancer death in the U.S., with some 20 percent of the 600,000 cancer deaths per year attributed to obesity,” write the authors of our feature story on the link between obesity and cancer.
Fundamental questions remain. One is, what causes obesity? Some have pointed the finger at low doses of environmental chemicals, which can make animals gain weight. Obesity has also been linked to the gut microbiome. And, of course, we can’t overlook the importance of diet, though two opinions in this issue argue that obesity is not simply a problem of willpower, as it is often portrayed—it is a chronic disease.
Then, of course, there are the consequences of obesity. Fat can affect neural activity in the brain, diminish muscle performance, and trigger a fatty acid synthesis pathway that spurs T cell differentiation and inflammation. Sometimes, a little extra weight can have health benefits.
Finally, researchers are trying to figure out how to treat obesity. Bariatric surgery has come a long way since it was first implemented in the middle of the 20th century, sometimes with fatal outcomes. And pharmaceutical treatments for obesity are finally coming into their own.