Hot and cold news about hand washing

Hello and happy Saturday! Here’s our roundup of the week’s interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science.

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Science throws cold water on hand washing

Does it matter if the water is hot when you’re washing your hands? No, according to research at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The researchers put harmless bacteria on volunteers’ hands before washing and then studied what happened when the water was 15, 26, and 38 degrees Celsius. It made no difference.

“Some people erroneously think that the water temperature is somehow killing the bacteria,” said Don Schaffer, the lead researcher. “But if you used water that was hot enough to kill bacteria, you would scald your hands.”

Flour mystery remains unsolved, but public health investigation is closed

After six months, and 30 confirmed illnesses, the Public Health Agency of Canada has declared the E.coli flour outbreak investigation closed.

Flour sifter

Eight individuals were hospitalized in an outbreak of E. coli O121 linked to various flour and flour products, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. (Shutterstock)

Eight people ended up in hospital after eating raw dough, including a two-year-old boy who almost died after his kidneys shut down. His mother told Global News about the horrifying experience after the child ate raw cookie batter. He needed a blood transfusion and spent four weeks in hospital.

The link with flour was made when someone who got sick remembered they had eaten raw flour and still had some at home. It tested positive for E. coli 0121, and that genetic fingerprint was used to link the other 29 cases.

Most of the infections occurred between November and January in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario and Quebec. One visitor to Canada also got sick.

Contaminated flour might still be circulating. Last week the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) expanded the recall for potentially affected products, which include various brands of flour, prepared tart and pie shells and pizza dough balls.

The original cause of the outbreak is still a mystery. The CFIA investigation is continuing. ”E. coli is known to live naturally in the intestines of cattle, poultry and other animals,” spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said in an email.  

Although there have been no new illnesses since early April, health officials warn it is never safe to taste or eat raw dough.

CRISPR chaos

Everyone loves CRISPR, the exciting new gene editing tool that has transformed biological science and sparked a high-profile fight for the right to patent the discovery.

DNA light

Financial markets were nervous this week after news of off-target mutations with CRISPR gene editing. (Shutterstock)

So there was widespread alarm this week when scientists announced that CRISPR had caused dozens of unintended genetic mutations in CRISPR-edited mice.

Financial markets panicked and stocks fell and there was much hand-wringing among investors. But most scientists were not surprised, because they’ve known all along that CRISPR could make genetic mistakes.  

Medical historian Nathaniel Comfort is watching the dramatic CRISPR story unfold.

“There are two main sets of concerns,” he told us. “What if it works? And what if it doesn’t? And the paper this week goes under the heading ‘What if it doesn’t?’”

“We need to be really vigilant about hype and be cautious about oversell. Because human genetics all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century has oversold the promise.”

One risk of overselling the promise of research, he said, is that people think they have more control than they do.

He points to the early setbacks with gene therapy, including one trial where doctors cured a genetic disease in two young French girls, but also accidently turned on a cancer gene.

“CRISPR is more accurate, but we’re still finding out how accurate it is and still discovering that it’s less accurate than we thought.”

So, despite the early excitement about the potential for building malaria-resistant mosquitoes, eradicating genetic disease and creating designer humans and other animals, there is much about CRISPR that is still not known.

It’s called research for a reason.

Standing desks reduced sitting, but not waistlines

What happens when you give a dozen sedentary and overweight desk-bound office workers in Charlottetown a chance to stand at their desk, instead of sitting all day? That’s what a group of researchers at the University of P.E.I. wanted to know.

So they put up posters around town asking for volunteers and convinced a company to donate desks that could be moved from a sitting to a standing position.

The researchers recruited 25 men and women who fit the criteria: overweight, sedentary and had a big enough office space to fit the desk.

Half were randomized to use the desks. The other half acted as a control group, still sitting at their old desks. Everyone got blood tests and other measurements and they also wore a device that tracked when they stood up or sat down.

In the end, the desks did significantly decrease sitting time. But that’s all that happened. Nobody lost weight after all that standing. And there were no changes in blood sugar, blood pressure or other metabolic indicators.

“Long story short, we didn’t actually see any of those things change the way we thought we might have,” Jamie Burr, the lead author, told us. “It could be a few things. It was a small study. Or maybe it was because the study was only three months. It might take years of standing to have a meaningful difference.”

What we can learn about love from the tiny prairie vole

Once prairie voles find their mate, they stay together for life. And it’s not just because they’re so cute. There seems to be something special happening in their brains that might offer insights into human behaviour.

prairie voles

Researchers monitored the brains of prairie voles for clues about their social bonding. (Emory University)

Because prairie voles form monogamous relationships for their entire life, they’ve become the research standard for scientists looking for insight into social bonding, said Robert Liu, senior author of a study published this week in the journal Nature and an associate professor at Emory University.  

When voles form a bond, they start “huddling” together.

“It’s kind of like cuddling in humans,” said Liu. “The animals kind of like to spend time side by side, sitting quietly next to each other.”

Using electrodes, the researchers found neural activity in a circuit between the prefrontal cortex of the brain and another area called the nucleus accumbens (associated with feeling rewarded) while the voles were huddling.

“You can think about this connection as being like an engine hum,” Liu said. “The stronger, the louder that hum, or the revving of that engine, the quicker these animals start to show affection for each other.”

The researchers were able to go a step beyond simply observing that brain connection and actually manipulate it, he said.

They put female and male voles together in a cage and stimulated the circuit in the female’s brain. Later, they gave the females the choice of spending time with the same male, or with a male “stranger.” The females showed a preference for the males with whom they had received stimulation on the neural circuit.

Although this research is an early step, Liu hopes it could ultimately help people struggling with social dysfunctions, including those with autism or schizophrenia.

“If we can understand what’s sort of normally happening to sort of promote social bonding and see what can go wrong, we can maybe think sometime in the future, when stimulation technology advances, about ways in which this circuit could potentially be manipulated to help.”

Feeling your age?

The Journal of Sex Research might not be on your regular reading list, but there’s one article this week that attracted attention. That’s because it suggests that sexual satisfaction might depend on whether you feel your age.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo analyzed data from a 10-year study of men and women their mid-40s to mid-70s with diverse sexual orientations. The researchers concluded that people who felt younger had better sex regardless of their chronological age. The study didn’t explain why that might be true, and the authors stated that health and other social or biological factors could also be factors.

They added one important caveat: feeling younger didn’t affect how much sex people were having, just how much they were enjoying it.

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