The bad news: Persistently low and volatile prices are raising fears that world demand for cocoa, the principal ingredient in the much-loved confectionery known as chocolate, could soon exceed availability. Aside from something called swollen shoot virus disease, the problem is, given the money, solvable: A shortage of warehouse storage capacity in the major cocoa productions of West Africa, South America, and Asia could relatively easily be overcome by, duh, building more facilities. But the funds to do so are lacking, so the risk of shortages is a real one.
The good news: Researchers in the UK and Brazil have found people identify a chocolate-like aroma in flour made from roasted jackfruit seeds, according to Food Navigator. Their studies hold promise for jackfruit’s ability to mimic the aroma of chocolate, making jackfruit, which has many of the same characteristics as cocoa, a potential stand-in for the real thing, providing consumers a taste and feel they like like in chocolate-like products.
The even better news: A study at the University of Malaysia has found that substituting a proportion of jackfruit flour for wheat flour in cake-making can result in a caloric reduction of more than 30% in the end product.
Food Dive reports that the International Cocoa Organization said about 4.7 million tons of cocoa are currently being produced worldwide, with total production expected to rise about 18% from 2016.
“It’s still early as far as the jackfruit being used as a substitute for cocoa. Even if the fruit has many of the same characteristics as cocoa, if it does not mirror the taste or texture, it could instantly turn off consumers. It’s also uncertain how well the flour made from roasted jackfruit seeds would work with other ingredients used to make chocolate, or how much it would cost to produce the cocoa-like substitute. Figuring out these answers will go a long way toward determining whether it can displace cocoa in even a small amount of foods,” Food Dive says.
Developing additional U.S. markets for the popular jackfruit — now used in ice cream, smoothies, soups and side dishes — could stimulate new income streams, along with adding value and reducing widespread waste in places where it grows.
Jackfruit is the world’s largest tree-borne fruit, capable of reaching sizes of more than 80 pounds, growing both on branches and the trunks of trees native to South and East Asia. It’s botanically related to figs, mulberries, and breadfruit.
The fruit is increasingly popular with U.S. consumers. Pinterest named jackfruit as the top food itempeople will be trying in 2017 based on a 420% increase in interest among users of the social media platform. Vegetarians and vegans are driving some of this interest because of jackfruit’s evolving role as a meat substitute, despite its relative lack of protein.
Jackfruit delivers a powerful nutritional package as a significant source of vitamin A, C and the B-complex vitamins, dietary fiber and several important minerals, particularly potassium, magnesium, manganese, and iron. Among its other assets, jackfruit contains no cholesterol and virtually no fat.
Scientists have developed a new drug that promises the pain-numbing effects of opioids without their addictive characteristics. An article last week in MIT Technology Review said this “promising new pain-killer… appears to separate the powerful pain dulling effects of synthetic opioids from side effects that include physical dependence, constipation, and potentially fatal respiratory depression.”
To find the new drug–named PZM21 and detailed in a paper published August 17 in Nature–a research team at UCSF’s School of Pharmacy simulated some four trillion different chemical interactions between the brain’s “morphine receptors,” and a virtual library of close to 4 million commercially available drug compounds. Choosing the best candidates, they then worked in collaboration with researchers from three other institutions to develop a compound that functioned in the way they hoped, after testing it in mice.
“Opioids can cause respiratory depression–that’s why people die, because they stop breathing,” says Brian Shoichet, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF’s School of Pharmacy and co-senior author on the paper. “Our hope was to come up a molecule that doesn’t have those effects.”
The scientists have raised venture capital funds from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers to start a new company called Epiodyne, that will seek to develop the painkillers.
The finding is just the latest promising development in the ongoing effort to separate the pain numbing effects of opioids from their potentially deadly and addictive side effects—an effort that has taken on new urgency as opioid-related deaths and addiction in the United States reach epidemic proportions. (See “The Painkillers that Could End the Opioid Crisis”). A number of efforts are underway to develop a new painkiller without side effects, including a similar compound that’s currently being tested in humans.
An estimated 100 million Americans are afflicted with chronic pain. Up to 8 percent of patients prescribed narcotic painkillers for chronic pain will become addicted, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In 2014, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses in the United States topped 18,000, about 50 a day—more than three times the number in 2001. And that doesn’t even take into account painkiller addicts who have turned to heroin to soothe their cravings. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently compared the scale of the problem to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s.
The Nature paper, produced by scientists at UC San Francisco, Stanford University, the University of North Carolina, and the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, grew out of a years-long collaboration between Shoichet and Brian Kobilka, a Stanford University Nobel Laureate, Bryan Roth, a leading expert in opioid pharmacology, and Peter Gmeiner, a leading medicinal chemist.
Brian Kobilka, a Stanford University Nobel Laureate, is among the researchers behind the drug discovery.
The findings showcase the power of two key innovations that make it easier to develop new drugs. In 2007, Kobilka developed a new method that for the first time allowed scientists to map the precise atomic structure of a class of proteins in the brain known as G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). (In 2012, Kobilka’s innovations won him the Nobel Prize). GPCRs straddle the inside and outside of the cells and play a key role in the ability of brain cells to respond to biochemical signals emanating from elsewhere in the body—including the nerve impulses that make us feel pain.
Shoichet, meanwhile, has been working for almost three decades to build a computer program capable of simulating the way that different kinds of drugs interact on the molecular level with the brain. At the time of the analysis for the Nature paper, Shoichet’s computer program included a database with the chemical structures of between three and four million commercially available drugs.
Shoichet and Kobilka have been collaborating since 2007, when the Stanford researcher first developed his new techniques for mapping GPCRs. So when one of Kobilka’s graduate students, Aashish Manglik, used his methods to, for the first time, map the atomic structure of the receptors activated by opioids, it seemed an ideal opportunity.
Opioids, from OxyContin to heroin and morphine, work their magic by binding to what are known as MU receptors at the junctions where nerve cells meet. The binding reduces the ability of these cells to fire. So when nerve fibers at the periphery of the body send pain signals up to the brain for processing, the neurons that would normally make us feel this pain don’t respond.
But MU receptors aren’t located simply in the centers of the brain that detect pain. They are also found at other junctions all around the body in areas that have nothing to do with registering pain. Thus opioids can cause a wide number of side effects by exerting their influence in other parts of the body.
The challenge has been to find novel drug compounds that activate the proteins that numb pain without activating proteins that lead to the side effects. Working with another graduate student in Shoichet’s lab, Manglik programmed the database to simulate the way different drugs might interact with the receptor, in the hopes of finding one that did not produce unwanted side effects, which is what PZM21 appears to do.
“The virtual screening technology really pulled this out of a 4 million compound haystack,” says Stanford’s Kobilka, a co-author on the paper.
Opioids are medications that relieve pain. They reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. Medications that fall within this class include hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs. Hydrocodone products are the most commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including dental and injury-related pain. Morphine is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain. Codeine, on the other hand, is often prescribed for mild pain. In addition to their pain relieving properties, some of these drugs—codeine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil) for example—can be used to relieve coughs and severe diarrhea.
Opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain. Opioids can also produce drowsiness, mental confusion, nausea, constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, can depress respiration. Some people experience a euphoric response to opioid medications, since these drugs also affect the brain regions involved in reward. Those who abuse opioids may seek to intensify their experience by taking the drug in ways other than those prescribed. For example, OxyContin is an oral medication used to treat moderate to severe pain through a slow, steady release of the opioid. People who abuse OxyContin may snort or inject it, thereby increasing their risk for serious medical complications, including overdose.
Hospital admissions to treat HIV fell by one-third between 2000 and 2013, even though the number of people living with HIV increased by more than 50 percent during that time, according to a new study from AHRQ – the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The analysis is the first to show that a downward trend in the number of hospital admissions per person living with HIV continued after 2010. Based on HIV patient data in five states – California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina – the study found that people with HIV were 64 percent less likely to be hospitalized in 2013 than they were in 2000.
The study attributed the reduction to highly active antiretroviral therapy to treat HIV that was introduced between 1995 and 2000 as well as clinicians’ enhanced ability to treat HIV.
An abstract of the study, “Hospital Use by Persons With HIV in the 21st Century: a 5-State Study,” which was published in Medical Care, is available here.
Photograph: Hui-Yuan Yeh/ Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
It wasn’t just merchandise that was hauled along ancient China’s ‘Silk Road’: Recently discovered ‘bottom wipers’ – bamboo sticks with grimy fabric and more ‘earthy’ remains on them – revealed that both disease and animal species were inadvertently transported by traveling traders.
The sticks, found in a 2,000-year-old latrine, provided the first solid evidence that various species of parasites made the trip along the road, spreading disease from east to west, according to a recent article in The Guardian.
Originally published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports(paywall), the report by Hui-Yuan Yeh, a researcher at Cambridge University, and several colleagues, notes that one of the parasites, found in feces stuck to the cloth on some sticks, was associated with the Chinese liver fluke. Because it needs marshy conditions to complete its life cycle, that 1 cm (.39 in) long parasite could not have come from the desert area around the ancient Xuanquanzhi relay station, the site of the excavated latrine.
In fact, the Guardian article said, “The Chinese liver fluke originated thousands of miles away from the arid Tamrin Basin, an area including the Taklamakan Desert – one of the harshest on earth, dubbed “the desert of death” by the Chinese. Two thousand years ago the parasite’s unfortunate host would have been a very unhappy traveler, producing symptoms including fever, griping pain, diarrhea and jaundice.
The Chinese liver fluke, which also has been associated with some kinds of cancer, presently is being studied as having potentially being useful in healing chronic wounds such as diabetic ulcers.
The Guardian noted that relay stations at oasis towns, where travelers could rest and buy food, were crucial for any traders on the Silk Road hoping to survive the desert crossing. The bone dry conditions at these sites have preserved a wealth of organic remains for archaeologists, the article said.
The large Xuanquanzhi station was excavated just over 20 years ago. It has been dated to the Han dynasty, and was in use between 111BC to 109 AD. The most celebrated finds from the site are fragments of letters and other documents – including some written on silk.
But the ‘bottom wipe’ sticks will undoubtedly prove to be among its most interesting revelations.
Many teens are concerned about their looks. Some take steps to alter their looks in the interest of being – or at least appearing to be – healthy. Unfortunately, some five percent of American teens are using enhancements of questionable value, and potentially risky, in order to make themselves look more attractive, though not necessarily healthier.
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a new report that kids taking steroids, protein powders, diet pills and similar substances are, in the interest of a false sense of ‘glamour’, “manliness,’ ‘strength’ or some other attribute, actually putting their health – and their lives – at risk.
“Doctors think of performance-enhancing substance use as an athlete problem, but many non-athletes are using these substances for appearance enhancement,” said Dr. Michele LaBotz, a report co-author of the new study.
In reporting on the study published this month (June) in the journal Pediatrics, HealthDay said boys go for protein supplements, caffeine, steroids and creatine, which revs up energy in cells. Nonprescription weight-loss supplements are popular among girls, the researchers reported.
Over-the-counter supplements, which were deregulated in 1994, are the substances used most often by teens, LaBotz said. Studies have shown many are contaminated with toxic heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, or steroids and stimulants like amphetamines, she added.
The report urges doctors to educate parents and teens about the dangers of these supplements and discourage their use.
“Substances spiked with stimulants put you at higher risk for cardiovascular problems,” said LaBotz, a sports medicine physician from South Portland, Maine. “If you are one of the many teens already on stimulants for ADHD, you’re compounding the risk of heart problems.”
Steroids are obviously dangerous, too, LaBotz added. “A lot of the effects of steroids are irreversible, including stunted growth and the growth of male breasts — gynecomastia. These don’t go away when you stop putting steroids in your body,” she noted.
In addition, steroids can cause severe acne, and suddenly stopping them can result in depression and heightened risk of suicide, she said.
There are other concerns about supplements. Many studies have found performance-enhancing supplements are a gateway to using drugs and alcohol and participating in other risky behaviors, LaBotz said.
Based on U.S. surveys of eighth- through 12th-grade students, 5 percent to 7 percent of teen boys use steroids, as many as one in five use creatine, and 20 percent take protein supplements, LaBotz said. Many kids using protein supplements aren’t playing sports, the report said.
For most teens, these supplements build no more muscle than what naturally occurs with puberty and a good diet and exercise program, LaBotz said.
Much of the supplement use is driven by the supplement industry and popular culture, LaBotz said. Fitness and health magazines that promote bodybuilding attract teens at risk for using performance-enhancing substances, she said.
One physician faults the culture that promotes a muscled and trim appearance as desirable.
“As long as top athletes make use of such substances, they will propagate the inclination in young people looking on,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center at Yale University, and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
Professional athletes may not have signed up to be role models, but that comes with the power of success and celebrity, he said.
“Professional sports and society at large should do everything possible to ensure that these ambassadors of peak human performance model only healthy, legitimate means to those ends,” Katz said.
These substances lead to health risks more often than they offer any meaningful performance or appearance enhancement, he added.
The pediatricians’ group hopes the report will spur discussions about the harms of supplement use. “Often, doctors avoid talking about supplements with kids because it’s something they don’t know a lot about,” LaBotz said.
Parents have a role to play too, she said. “They have a lot of influence and they should know what their teens are taking and should discourage the use of these supplements,” she said.
The report was published online June 27 in the journal Pediatrics.
China’s Ministry of Education has said it will tear up running tracks at schools that have been blamed for making students ill.
In China, where a recent survey revealed that around 20 percent of the country’s arable land is contaminated, and air pollution in some cities is so bad that merely venturing outdoors poses a danger to your health, another form of pollution is threatening the short- and long-term health of school children who use running tracks. “Poison runways,” as the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China said in a recent CCTV report.
Synthetic (rubberized or rubber-like) tracks at many schools are made from industrial waste—including recycled tires, cables and wire. A frightening large number of children using such tracks have developed health issues that could, conceivably, be long-lasting and/or precursors of cancer of one type or another. (Leukemia has already been reported in at least one province with the ‘poison runways.’”
A CCTV report earlier this week noted that numerous students at the Beijing Second Experimental Primary School have suffered nosebleeds, dizziness and “similar problems” that seem to be attributable to the “plastic [running] track [that] exudes [a] pungent smell.”
The report says that school’s situation is far from an isolated case: “Not just in Beijing, odorous ‘runways’ have been observed across the country for at least two years.” (The preceding sentence is an ‘approximate’ English translation of the report on CCTV’s web site. That report, in the show ‘The Economic Half Hour,’ was entitled “Who created the poison runway?”
CCTV said an investigation has been launched to discover the source of the problem, but a report in today’s New York Times suggests the fault isn’t hard to find: Subcontractors who built the tracks are said to have used sub-standard materials – below, it would seem, the ‘standard’ quality of “recycled tires, cables and wire” – and also, The Times said, “violated safety rules.”
A rambling report from the Ministry of Education – rambling, at least, in the Google translation to English – notes at one point that “there is no standards and industry standards” regulating the production or installation of sports-related equipment (including tracks).”
As well as demanding the establishment of “effective measures” to address the existing problem, the Ministry decreed that schools or school districts should “establish standards and implementation to further promote the improvement and implementation of standards.”
The Chinese, not being a God-fearing people, probably don’t understand the phrase “from your lips to God’s ear.” Also being more respecting of people in theory than in practice, Chinese authorities may, or may not, ensure appropriate changes are made to protect, in at least this way, the children who are their future.
Concussions – “traumatic brain injuries that alter the way the brain functions” (as per The Mayo Clinic) – have been increasingly in the news in recent years, mostly because an increasing number of current and former professional and high school football players are suffering severe effects from them.
So, as it happens, are a great many children: Close to two million teenagers and younger children suffer concussions annually, according to results of a study released recently.
Using data from hospitals, doctor visits and athletic trainers, the investigators estimated between 1 million and 1.9 million concussions occur annually among kids aged 18 and younger due to sports and recreation injuries.
But more than half a million of these head injuries aren’t seen in emergency rooms or by physicians, which is why official tallies are usually too low, they noted.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in how many concussions from sports and recreation occur each year because many concussions are not reported,” explained lead researcher Dr. Mersine Alexis Bryan, a pediatrician at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Better surveillance for concussions due to sports and recreational activities is needed, so we can understand how kids are getting concussions and ways we can prevent concussions,” Bryan added.
These head injuries are often serious.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a blow to the head resulting in concussion can stretch and damage brain cells and create chemical changes in the brain.
For this study, researchers used three national databases to try to target the total number of childhood concussions. Other research has typically been limited to high school head injuries or ER visits, they noted.
They found that among children diagnosed with concussion, nearly 378,000 were seen by doctors; from 115,000 to 167,000 were treated in emergency rooms; and roughly 3,000 to 5,000 were hospitalized, the researchers found.
But between 500,000 and 1.2 million concussions were reported to certified athletic trainers, the researchers added. These accounted for 23 percent to 53 percent of sports- and recreation-related concussions among high school students, Bryan said.
Concussions were tagged as sports-related if medical records mentioned a sport, whether the injury was from a fall, collision or another mechanism. Head injuries were deemed recreation-related if they occurred in playground-type settings or during activities such as bicycling or skateboarding.
One brain specialist said that even these new estimates are likely way too low.
Dr. John Kuluz, director of traumatic brain injury and neurorehabilitation at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, said doctors’ coding errors on medical forms can result in questionable findings.
“The main problem I have with these estimates is that they are based on diagnostic codes,” he said. “Many doctors do not use the code for concussion. I see it time and again — they use a code like ‘closed head injury’, because it’s easier to click on.”
If researchers only look for the concussion code, they’ll miss a lot, Kuluz said.
A study published in May in the journal JAMA Pediatrics also found that many childhood concussions go unreported.
In that report, four out of five children were diagnosed at a primary care practice, not the emergency department.
Responding to that report, Dr. Debra Houry, a CDC injury specialist, said more must be done to track pediatric concussions treated outside the ER.
“Better estimates of the number, causes and outcomes of concussion will allow us to more effectively prevent and treat them, which is a priority area for CDC’s Injury Center,” Houry said.