Don't Be So Quick to Trust Companies That Claim to Know Your 'Cellular' Age

iStock
iStock

Coinciding with the popularity of DNA testing kits, companies that claim to be able to tell your “cellular age” from a drop of blood have also attracted quite a few customers.

However, their results can’t always be trusted, according to Science News. Oncologist and Johns Hopkins researcher Mary Armanios told the website that the tests can do more harm than good by sending perfectly healthy customers into a panic. 

“The telomere belongs in the clinic and should not be used as a form of molecular palm reading,” Armanios tells Science News. For instance, Armanios shared the story of one man in his forties who learned he supposedly had the telomeres of an 80-year-old. In hopes of making the most of his remaining time, he quit his job, sold his house, and put off surgery that he believed would further shorten his telomeres.

For a cost of roughly $100, some companies claim to not only be able to tell you your cellular age, but also tell you how to improve your health so that you can live longer. They measure the length of telomeres, the cap at the ends of your chromosomes, in order to determine your biological age. Telomeres shorten with age, but other factors—like diet—can also chip away at them, potentially causing disease and other health-related problems. (On the other hand, telomeres can get longer in outer space, as astronaut Scott Kelly learned.)

However, as Science News notes, this isn’t always the most accurate indicator of health or life span because what’s considered “normal” encompasses a wider range than what those companies would have you believe. Extra-long telomeres may be associated with a higher cancer risk, and on the flip side, shorter telomeres don’t necessarily mean you’ll keel over tomorrow.

Indeed, the tests used by these companies have a 20 percent variability rate, meaning they can produce different results on different days, and not all scientists agree that telomere length can be used as a “biomarker” of age. The National Institute of Aging reached the conclusion that biomarkers for aging could not be scientifically validated, according to WIRED.

Research on telomere length can do a lot of good, though, when done correctly in a lab. These tests can be used to diagnose rare disorders and help patients get the care they need.

[h/t Science News]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER