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SMC Heads-Up: Alzheimer's blood test, big dish, bird decline

SMC Heads-Up: Blood test for Alzheimer's, big dish upgrade and insecticide fingered for bird decline

Issue 287 11-17July 2014

Blood test to predict Alzheimer's disease

Scientists are getting closer to developing a blood test for Alzheimer's disease according to new research published this week.

British scientists monitored 220 patients with mild cognitive impairments and identified 10 proteins that were present in the blood of 87 per cent of the study participants who went on to develop Alzheimer's within a year.

A blood test could be developed to detect the proteins in the blood, potentially allowing screening for the brain-wasting disease and earlier treatment with drugs for those testing positive.

"Many of our drug trials fail because by the time patients are given the drugs, the brain has already been too severely affected," said Oxford University neuroscience professor Simon Lovestone, who led the study at King's College London.

"A simple blood test could help us identify patients at a much earlier stage to take part in new trials and hopefully develop treatments which could prevent the progression of the disease.

"The next step will be to validate our findings in further sample sets."

Around 35 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's, 50,000 in New Zealand. The fatal disease had an estimated global social cost in 2010 of US$604 billion. The research was published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia.

Alzheimer's New Zealand welcomed the study findings:

"Receiving a diagnosis allows people affected by dementia to access services and support from local Alzheimers organisations and gives them the opportunity to plan for their future. Diagnostic tools such as this would be very helpful in detecting dementia in its early stages, and may add to the ability to do further research into prevention of dementia," a statement read.

"However it is early days for this study and further trials are required with a diverse range of people before its effectiveness can be determined."

Our colleagues at the UK SMC gathered reaction from experts:

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research, Alzheimer's Society, said:

"Finding a way to detect dementia before symptoms develop would revolutionise research into the condition. Most of the blood proteins identified here are not new to the dementia community, but this study has brought them together into a protein set that seems to predict disease severity. Although it needs to be validated in a larger group of people, their modelling work shows a set of 10 proteins can predict which people with mild cognitive impairments will progress to developing dementia.

Read the commentary in full here.

Read Diedrie Mussen's report on the research findings in the Dominion Post

On the science radar this week...

Suprise smallpox find, the nicotine switcheroo, spinal repair back-fire, boredom busting software the biggest ever flying bird.

Study links bird decline to insecticide use

Neonicotinoids, a class of neuro active insecticide previously linked to declining bee populations has, in a new study, also been pinpointed as a cause of bird population decline.

Dutch researchers published their findings in Nature this week, outlining a study showing that bird population trends were significantly more negative in streams and waterways in the Netherlands where concentrations of imidacloprid, the most commonly-used neonicotinoid insecticide, were higher.

Neonicotinoids are used to kill insects that can damage crops - but which also form an important food source for birds. Among the birds most affected, according to the researchers, are farmland birds like starlings, tree sparrows and swallows.

"These insecticides appear to be having more profound effects than just killing our pollinating insects," said ecologist Caspar Hallmann of Radboud University in the Netherlands, an author on the new study.

In a statement issued by neonicotinoid manufacturer Bayer, the company said the new study "provides no substantiated evidence of the alleged indirect effects of imidacloprid on insectivorous birds," and that it "does not demonstrate that there is a causal link."

Before the Headlines

The UK Science Media Centre evaluated the researcher's data and techniques in the latest in its "Before the Headlines" series.

The analysis found:

"Data on bird populations were collected in a standardised way over a long period of time in The Netherlands, so the study had a robust dataset to track bird populations.

"The authors were careful to exclude alternative explanations for the association between neonicotinoids and bird population decline. They found no such relationship between location and population decline in a time period before imidacloprid was used, thus ruling out a long-term trend. They also adjusted for land use in a multivariate analysis.

"A limitation is that the research is from a single country, so we cannot be sure that the results would apply outside The Netherlands. However, it seems reasonable to believe that countries with similar insect and bird populations would behave similarly."

Read the analysis and commentary from scientists here.

Big dish upgrade for radio astronomy

Telecom's decommissioned satellite earth station at Warkworth is to live on as a key piece of scientific infrastructure as AUT University assumes use of it as a radio telescope.

Use of the 30-metre dish is a boon for AUT's Professor of Astronomy, Sergei Gulyaev, as it significantly increases the collecting area and spectrum range his radio telescope can access.

The earth station is sited just a few hundred metres away from a 12-metre radio telescope operated by AUT on land also owned by Telecom.

What is the team looking skyward for? Galactic nuclei, star formation, the Milky Way's centre, cosmic masers and gaseous components of our Galaxy are some of the things they are studying.

With the Southern Cross Cable and other satellite connections available to it, the earth station has been surplus to requirements at Telecom for years. The dish now works in conjunction with Australian radio telescopes to form the long-baseline array.

The Institute is also using the dish as a base for some interesting commercial work. As Delwyn Dickey from the Rodney Times reports:

"The Warkworth facility is also the last one in the Pacific before the Mauna Kea Observatory 7000km away in Hawaii. This has led to IRASR picking up a 10-year contract to track the Space-X vehicle servicing the International Space Station as it heads across the Pacific."


"You look at what GM science might be able to do and you look at what the organic movement is trying to achieve and they're pretty much the same thing - it's how you get there that's different."

Dr William Rolleston, incoming

president of Federated Farmers

Policy news and developments

Census value: A new Stats NZ report, Valuing the Census, estimates the census will deliver about $1 billion in benefits during the next 25 years.

Climate travels: Climate Change Minister Tim Groser travels to Europe this week for a forum on Energy and Climate in Paris, followed by a visit to the Petersburg Climate Dialogue in Berlin.

Formula consultation: MPI has opened consultation on measures that aim to ensure the robustness of the government's assurance system for infant formula exports.

Open data: A new 2014 report on the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government shows that government agencies are increasingly releasing public non-personal data in open formats for reuse.

The Friday video...

Clever crows pick 2014

World Cup winners

New From the SMC

Experts respond:

UK SMC: Alzheimer's blood test?Expert comment on UK research indicating a panel of biomarkers could potentially be used for early Alzheimer's diagnosis..

AusSMC: No blood clot risk with HPV vaccine - A study of over half a million Danish women has found there is no increased risk of blood clots after completing a course of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, contradicting previous theories.

In the News:

Listener: Harm on the Farm - the Listener's latest editorialcalls for an improvement in animal welfare performance on New Zealand farms and more innovation to replace cruel and inefficient farm practices.

Reflections on Science:

Dominion Post: Government efforts on water "shallow" - A Dominion Post editorial criticises the new "bottom line" standards on freshwater quality as inadequate. Water New Zealand chief executive Murray Gibb responds with an op ed claiming more progress is being made than the Dominion Post gives credit for.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Misogyny in science - Shaun Hendy discusses women, science and his first brush with feminism.

A Measure of Science

Slippery strawmen? Economist Eric Crampton examines the slippery slope of tobacco regulation.

Dismal Science

Tangaroa gets an overhaul - NIWA's research ship gets a paint job and a new piece of kit for examining the sea bed.

Griffin's Gadgets

Research highlights

Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

HPV vaccine clot risk ruled out: Although some preliminary data has suggested a potential association between receiving the Gardasil HPV vaccination and subsequent venous thromboembolism (a type of blood clot), a new of analysis more than 500,000 women who received the vaccine did not find an increased risk of clots. "Safety concerns can compromise immunisation programs to the detriment of public health, and timely evaluations of such concerns are essential," the authors write. Gardasil is publicly funded for women under 20 in New Zealand.


New approach to pixels: New research into how substances change colour when switching from crystalline to amorphous states could pave the way for a new class of smart devices. Very thin layers (around 7 nanometers thick) of these 'phase-change' materials are shown to produce clear and stable colour changes, requiring very little power. This approach has potential for use in various applications, such as flexible electronic paper, semi-transparent smart glasses or micro-displays.


Climate refugee fish a problem: The migration of tropical fish as a result of ocean warming poses a serious threat to the temperate areas they invade, because they overgraze on kelp forests and seagrass meadows, according to new research. The harmful impact of tropical fish is most evident in southern Japanese waters and the eastern Mediterranean, where there have been dramatic declines in kelps.

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Grazing could help regenerate native forests: There is increasing interest in establishing indigenous forests on marginal pastoral hill country in New Zealand to improve soil conservation, water quality and indigenous biodiversity. A ten year study of totara seedlings in Northland suggests that grazing assists totara regeneration by keeping pasture cover short, thus increasing light levels near ground level for newly germinated seedlings.

New Zealand Journal of Forestry Science

Neonicotinoids linked to bird decline: Dutch researchers haveidentified a correlation between declines in farmland bird populations and use of neonicotinoid pesticides. The analysis indicates that pesticide use may reduce the amount of insect prey available to birds and suggests that neonicotinoids pose an even greater risk to wildlife than anticipated previously. Images available.


Upcoming sci-tech events

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

Where does science end and art begin? Public lecture from Lord Robert Winston - 14 July, Wellington.

The Demise of New Zealand's Freshwaters: Politics and Science - RSNZ 2014 Charles Fleming Lecture with Dr Mike Joy - 15 July, Palmerston North; 17 July, Napier.

Chasing equity: Our Women and Children are dying - University of Otago Winter Lecture with Dr Beverly Lawton - 16 July, Wellington; 17 July, Auckland.

© Scoop Media

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