Health & Science

Putting a deadly virus to good use; Fido’s not looking so good; What makes a pedophile?; Too much fat can cause cancer; Turning worms gay.

Putting a deadly virus to good use

The AIDS virus can insinuate itself directly into the nuclei of immune cells and reprogram genes. French scientists are now tapping into that nefarious ability to help people with genetic diseases, turning HIV into a tool to deliver healthy genes, says Nature. In an experiment some scientists are hailing as a “breakthrough,’’ researchers at France’s national biomedical agency have used a nonlethal piece of HIV to improve the condition of two 7-year-old boys with adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a fatal disorder caused by a mutation on the X chromosome in certain blood cells. To eliminate the X chromosome defect, researchers used the partial AIDS virus to “reprogram’’ the genes in the boys’ own harvested bone marrow. After the defective bone marrow was killed off with chemotherapy and replaced with the genemodified marrow, the boys grew new marrow and blood cells, 20 to 30 percent of which were healthy and normal. That’s an “exceptional” result, study author Patrick Aubourg says, offering new hope to people with ALD. If the boys do not suffer serious side effects in coming months, the same technique may be used to deliver healthy genes to people suffering from sickle cell anemia and leukemia.

Fido’s not looking so good

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Humans aren’t the only ones at risk from drug-resistant staph—pets are getting it, too, say veterinarians who have been treating more dogs and cats since MRSA broke out. It’s very common, vets say, for the MRSA superbug to hit every member of the family: parents, children, and beloved pets, who, like people, often develop skin eruptions that can turn into life-threatening illnesses. “It’s definitely a rapidly expanding problem,’’ Dr. Lewis Gelfand tells Newsday. “I believe it is significantly underdiagnosed. We have been seeing dermatological cases as well as open sores.” Vets have seen some sick pets hospitalized for weeks at a time, kept alive with heavy doses of intravenous antibiotics.

What makes a pedophile?

Male pedophiles may develop their sexual fixation on children as a result of stunted physical development early in life or even in the womb, a new study suggests. Canadian researchers who collected statistical information on more than 1,000 men who had sexually violated a child found that pedophiles are, on average, nearly an inch shorter than other men. The difference across such a large group ruled out ethnic, racial, or genetic factors for the smaller stature, indicating that malnourishment, infections, or exposure to toxins had stunted their growth. “Pedophiles are not quite up to biological snuff,’’ study author James Cantor tells LiveScience. com. Previous studies have shown that pedophiles’ brains are different from those of normal adults, and that they often experience troubles in school or show developmental difficulties. “Pedophilia,’’ says University of Lethbridge psychologist Martin Lalumière, “is likely a neurodevelopmental disease that people are born with.’’ This, he says, may explain why it has proved impossible to change pedophiles’ sexual interest in children; at best, they can learn not to act on it.

Too much fat can cause cancer

Bad news for people who are carrying around too much fat: Not only does it raise your risk of heart disease, it significantly raises your risk of developing cancer, says USA Today. An analysis of more than 7,000 studies by the American Institute for Cancer Research has found that excess body fat is linked to higher rates of colon, kidney, pancreatic, uterine, and breast cancer. Fat cells, scientists say, produce hormones that promote the growth of cancer cells. “People forget body fat is not an inert glob we are carrying around on the waistline and thighs,’’ says Karen Collins, a nutrition advisor to the cancer institute. “It’s metabolically active tissue that produces substances that promote the development of cancer.’’ About 40 percent of all cancers are connected to eating too much, lack of exercise, and body fat, the institute’s report said. It found that eating processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and pepperoni, was particularly dangerous; for every 1.7 ounces of such meat consumed each day, colon cancer risk rose by 21 percent.

Turning worms gay

Are some people born gay? In the latest study to support the theory that sexual orientation is biologically determined, University of Utah researchers found that they could turn straight worms gay by altering a single gene. That gene, in the tiny worms’ brains, made female nematode worms suddenly develop an attraction to other females a nd start “acting male.’’ Study author Erik Jorgenson tells the London Times that because human brains are so much more complex, you can’t necessarily generalize the findings up the evolutionary scale. But the dramatic turnaround in attraction that altering a single gene can produce, he says, does suggest biology is involved. “It seems possible that if sexual orientation is genetically wired in worms, it would be in people, too.”

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