Issue 87

Introducing The Aging Effect, the telomere positron effect, and the history of the FDA

Jan. 18, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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Population trends of the past decade are going to have lasting implications on the next one and beyond.

Found while reporting: Slow US population growth will create high demand for caregiving.

Friend, I’ve been writing a lot about aging a lot, and I love it. I do this through reporting on health and neurodegenerative disease a lot. But ultimately, I want to show that although older adults tend to be forgotten (or made fun of), they’re not all that different from younger adults at their core.

This mission is more important than ever when you look at the US population growth in the 2010s:

The natural population change is still increasing, but at a decreasing rate. When the two lines below cross:

We’ll enter a shrinking population—much like Japan has now.

Having a lower birth rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can mean that people who can become pregnant have access to reproductive health care that empowers them to make the choice to have children. But it does make it harder to find ways to support all of the older adults who aren’t working, or have more complicated health needs (and really, anyone with complicated health needs).

In the next decade, aging populations are going to change the economies, health care systems, and overall infrastructure of the US and beyond. I’m thrilled to say one of my reporting priorities in 2020 tracking all the countries are adapting over time. You can follow the Quartz Obsession The Aging Effect for more stories like this one throughout the year.

Telomeres may do more than track cellular aging.

Found while reporting: A biotech startup thinks its idea could cure dementia—but scientists have their doubts.

Last issue, I wrote about the 10-year anniversary of the discovery of telomerase. It’s that enzyme that builds up our telomeres in cells, but is also pretty closely tied to cancer. If you missed it, you can read the story here.

This week, I wrote a story about a company created on the idea that a gene therapy introducing telomerase could actually be the treatment for not just Alzheimer’s, but all forms of dementia.

The thinking is that in addition to functioning like tree rings that depict a cell’s age, telomeres also regulate other genes. So as telomeres shorten, they tell other genes coding for different proteins to produce fewer or sloppier products that are less efficient at their jobs. Over time, it’s these insufficient proteins resulting from shrinking telomeres that lead to dementia or other health problems related to aging. The scientific name for the phenomenon is the telomere positron effect but scientists still don’t fully understand it.

Could this be a viable treatment for dementia? Who knows! At this point, without a cure for dementia all ideas are worth exploring. But this theory is indeed pretty out-there, and because of the ties to cancer it’d have to be well-studied before actually being tried in humans.

The US Food and Drug Administration didn’t check to see if marketed drugs actually worked until 1962.

Found while reporting: The US Food and Drug Administration is green lighting new drugs faster than ever.

When the FDA was first created in 1906, when medicine was essentially a free for all. A lot of over-the-counter drugs—often peddled by people with questionable medical knowledge—had ingredients like alcohol, opium, and cocaine. (True, they likely made people feel better, but didn’t address the root cause of anything and ultimately had a lot of undesirable long-term consequences.) The FDA’s job then was to make sure that these medicines had ingredient labels, and that a doctor had in fact written the patient a prescription for a specific, “safe” dose.

It didn’t really help. So in 1938, Congress passed another law saying that all medications had to have demonstrated data proving it was nontoxic, but limited the FDAs power to within the first 60 days it was on the market. Also, a bit of a dud of a law for regulation.

So in 1962, Congress passed another law that forced drug companies to conduct these clinical trials and present the data to them for review, much like the system we have today. The switch was inspired by thalidomide—an anti-nausea drug that ended up causing severe birth defects in the children of people who took it while pregnant.

But there was another problem: Congress didn’t approve the FDA’s budget to be big enough to review a massive amount of data from potential drugs in a timely manner. So to speed up the review process, it passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act in 1992, which allowed drug companies to give money to the FDA when submitting a new drug application.

In theory, this is so the FDA could hire enough people to review these applications in a timely manner. But it still caused me to raise an eyebrow. Especially because in 2018, the FDA collected $908 million from drug companies. That’s a lot of financial support.

Animal of the issue: The Taliabu Grasshopper-warbler

The Taliab Grasshopper-warbler—a small bird with a grey breast and brown wings with a black beak. Image credit to Ames Eaton/Birdtour Asia

You bet I’m going to take a second to talk about the 10 new species of birds—including the above warbler—described in a paper published Jan. 9! These birds were all found in a single six-week trip to Indonesia. My colleague Alex Ossola has the story here.

I am not a bird expert, but one thing that has brought me a lot of joy recently is the game Wingspan. It’s a strategy game involving collecting bird cards and laying eggs, but it’s also gorgeous. Every bird card features a unique realistic rendition of a bird, and a fact about that creature. It’s a great way to spend time if you’re trying to get away from screens in 2020, and also to just appreciate the sheer diversity of this class of animals.

Stuff I learned from others:

In a study about MDMA, scientists accidentally gave participants meth (the paper’s being retracted). Vulture vomit (a defense mechanism) is so corrosive it eats away at metal radio towers. Nursing homes may charge hidden fees to do things like administer medication. Teens are surprisingly happy to have their phones taken away. Anytime we burn anything, there’s a gas 300x more potent than CO2 being released. The internet is making bullying and breakups far worse than they were before.

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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

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