Meet The Senior Dogs Trying The Latest Anti-Aging Pill

About a year ago, Sherman, a 13-year-old Pomeranian often mistaken for a teddy bear, had a stroke. The right side of his body went slack, and he couldn’t hear or move his tongue. His owners, Paola Anderson and Sarah Godfrey, had to feed him by hand and carry him outside. We took him to many different pet checkers and ultimately ended up taking him to a vet.

After spending several weeks and thousands of dollars on veterinarians and tests, they discovered the culprit: a tumor in an adrenal gland. Vets said Sherman probably had less than a month to live unless he had a tricky surgery. But Anderson and Godfrey didn’t want to put him through that. Even before the stroke he was a sick dog — with ligament problems, a collapsing trachea, and chronic bronchitis.

They asked a local herbalist who had treated them for years for advice. “He said, whatever you need to do to put your dog on rapamycin, do it,” Anderson told BuzzFeed News.

They had never heard of rapamycin, and started reading everything they could find about this supposed wonder pill. Turns out it’s an old drug, first isolated in the 1970s from dirt samples collected on Easter Island. In large doses, it can be a dangerous drug: Today, it’s usually prescribed to suppress a person’s immune system during an organ transplant.

Rapamycin stops tumor growth in lab experiments, and similar drugs have been tested in people with a variety of cancers. More recently, it’s made headlines for a tantalizing link to longevity: In studies of yeast, worms, flies, and mice, rapamycin has extended lifespan by 15 to 30%.

Most exciting for Anderson and Godfrey, scientists in Seattle had just launched a study to see if rapamycin would also extend the life of older dogs. Sherman couldn’t get into the study because he wasn’t a healthy dog. But he could still try rapamycin — if they could find a vet willing to prescribe it.

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BuzzFeed News, June 2016.

Epigenetic Test Can Predict Homosexuality, Controversial Study Claims

Researchers have developed an algorithm that they say can crudely predict homosexuality in men based on certain chemical tags in their DNA.

These controversial results, which have not yet been published in a scientific journal, will be presented Thursday afternoon at a genetics conference in Baltimore.

By analyzing five “epigenetic” tags — chemicals that latch onto DNA and help turn genes on or off — the algorithm can reportedly predict a man’s sexual orientation with 67% accuracy, according to Tuck Ngun, who led the work as a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA.

Several experts who were not involved in the research told BuzzFeed News that they were skeptical of the veracity of these results, particularly because the study was based on a relatively small sample of men.

“All predictive models need replication with larger samples, and this one certainly does,” J. Michael Bailey, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, told BuzzFeed News by email.

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BuzzFeed News, October 2015.

This Case Of A Phantom Pooper Is Hugely Important For Genetic Testing Laws

It was a weird and disgusting crime: Someone was leaving piles of poop in the aisles of a grocery warehouse run by Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services outside of Atlanta. So the company made a list of employee suspects and asked them to take a voluntary DNA test.

Two warehouse workers, Jack Lowe and Dennis Reynolds, were on that list. Worried they would lose their jobs, they allowed a scientist to brush the inside of their cheeks with cotton swabs and run DNA tests on the samples. The tests came back negative: Neither man was the “devious defecator,” as a judge later dubbed the culprit.

But Lowe and Reynolds were humiliated by the ordeal, and afraid of how their DNA might be used in the future. So in May 2013, seven months after the testing, they sued Atlas, citing the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which states that employers and medical insurers are not allowed to collect genetic data.

The men won their suit in May, and this Monday a federal jury granted the men $2.2 million in damages.

This is the first GINA case to go to trial, and sets a crucial precedent for labor law, experts say.

“It will be a famous and/or notorious case, depending on your perspective,” Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University, told BuzzFeed News. “This case went, in a couple of weeks, from being a locker-room punchline, a scatological joke, to something which I don’t think any employer is laughing about now.”

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BuzzFeed News, June 2015.

A New Facebook App Wants To Test Your DNA

A medical research study launched Tuesday aims to screen the genes of at least 20,000 people. Part of a surging tide of genetic research, this project would be unremarkable if not for the place it’s recruiting and communicating with volunteers: Facebook.

The scientists behind the project, Genes for Good, hope that Facebook users will send a tube of their spit to a laboratory at the University of Michigan and use a free Facebook app to fill out periodic surveys about their health, habits, and moods.

The scientists will screen the volunteers’ DNA to try to discover new links between certain genetic variants, health, and disease. To rigorously establish these links, the researchers will need to enlist tens of thousands of volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“We’re really hoping that the main reason people will join is to say, ‘Hey, my health and genetic information is valuable. I would like to share it and put it to good use,’” Gonçalo Abecasis, professor of biostatistics at the University of Michigan and one of the leaders of the project, told BuzzFeed News. “Hopefully that will be the major motivator.”

Abecasis and his colleagues stress that the Facebook app is a digital portal, and that Facebook will not have access to volunteers’ personal information. From the scientists’ perspective, Facebook is simply a communication service: a smart way to recruit the massive number of volunteers needed to carry out complex genetic studies. “The standard ways of collecting information on people don’t really scale,” Abecasis said.

Genes for Good could go viral if it taps into the public’s altruistic streak — as did Facebook’s organ donation status field, get out the vote campaigns, and the Ice Bucket Challenge.

On the other hand, some people are growing wary of Facebook’s reach into seemingly every aspect of life, and all of the privacy and security concerns that come with that. What’s more, the new app comes at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is beginning to crack down on genetic tests of all sorts.

“Some people are going to freak out about this,” Michelle Meyer, an assistant professor at the Union Graduate College-Mt. Sinai Bioethics Program, told BuzzFeed News. “DNA and Facebook are two words that most people do not want to hear in the same sentence.”

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BuzzFeed News, March 2015.

Pregnant Women Are Finding Out They Have Cancer From A Genetic Test Of Their Babies

Last May, when she was 10 weeks pregnant, Eunice Lee took a blood test to screen for diseases in her baby.

The test, called MaterniT21 PLUS, promised clear answers about the sex of her fetus as well an array of disorders, including Down syndrome. At 40 years old, Lee knew her baby had an elevated risk of genetic disease, and so she wanted this information as soon as possible.

Two weeks later Lee went to her obstetrician’s office to get the results. But instead of hearing about her baby’s genome, she got a shock about her own health.

“My OB walked into my room and was holding the sheet of paper in her hand,” Lee, an anesthesiologist in Santa Barbara, California, told BuzzFeed News. The doctor had just hung up the phone with Sequenom Laboratories, the San Diego company that performs the test.

“The director of the laboratory called my obstetrician and told her I needed to be worked up for cancer,” Lee said, “which was just alarming, to her and also to myself, because I had no idea I had cancer.”

MaterniT21 PLUS was the first noninvasive prenatal test (NIPT) to hit the market, in October 2011, and Sequenom has sold more than 400,000 of them. Five other companies — three in California and two in China — sell similar tests, and demand is rising sharply.

“There’s been about 800,000 women in the past year in the U.S. who have had an NIPT,” Eric Topol, a professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute, told BuzzFeed News. That’s a lot — about 20% of the 4 million total babies born each year. “It’s the hottest molecular test ever in the history of medicine.”

As the numbers tick upward, these tests — which only require a blood draw — are turning up rare genetic glitches not only in the DNA of the fetus, but the mother. click to view more.

Today at the Future of Genomic Medicine conference in La Jolla, California, scientists from Sequenom said they have seen more than 40 cases in which the test revealed an abnormal genetic profile suggestive of cancer in the mother. At least 26 of these women were subsequently confirmed to have cancer, including Eunice Lee.

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BuzzFeed News, March 2015.

Book Review: “The Invisible History of the Human Race”

Not so long ago, genealogy rested contentedly on the turf of hobbyists who enjoyed trolling dusty archives and filling pedigree charts. But over the past decade, because of the rise of digitized records and cheap DNA testing, the quaint pastime has turned into a lucrative commercial industry. Genealogy companies capitalize on consumers’ seemingly boundless curiosity about their personal origins. As the industry leader implores on its home page: “Join us on a journey through the story of how you became, well, you.” What country did my great-great-grandparents come from? Were they rich? Adventurous? Powerful? How did they lead to me?

Answers to these questions go beyond, say, whether you belong in the Mayflower Society, or whether you are in the male line of Genghis Khan (which, by the way, roughly 16 million men are). They can upend lives, particularly those of adoptees or descendants of slaves.

But what receives far less attention is how genealogy can reveal secrets about all of us, at once: the emergence of our species, the political history of the world, and the origins of the social structures that dictate modern life. As Christine Kenneally writes in this engrossing new book, genealogy’s boom gives us “historical transparency” as never before.

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The New York Times, December 2014.

Personhood Week: When Dead Bodies Become Dead People

On the night of July 19, 1916, halfway through the First World War, troops from Australia and Great Britain attacked German positions in Fromelles, in northern France. The Germans were prepared. The battled ended the next day, after thousands of Brits and Aussies had died. It was, according to amagazine produced by the Australian government, “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.”

In 2002, an Australian amateur historian named Lambis Englezos visited Fromelles and noticed that the number of graves was far fewer than the number of soldiers reported missing from the battle. He suspected that the Germans had buried many in mass graves, and over the next few years he convinced reporters at 60 Minutes Australia of his theory. Its eventualbroadcast, as well as reports from Red Cross records and aerial photos, led to an official investigation. In 2008 and 2009, archaeologists dug up five mass graves, containing 250 bodies.

Then came the question of identifying them. After more than 90 years, standard identification methods — fingerprints, medical and dental records — weren’t available. But there was DNA, deep inside the bone marrow. So the researchers extracted samples from the remains and then re-buried each body in its own grave.

This launched the Fromelles Identification Project (FIP), a joint effort by the Australian and British governments to find living descendants of the dead soldiers and convince them to donate their own DNA for matching. (The Y chromosome, passed through male descendants, changes very little from one generation to the next; same goes for mitochondrial DNA that is passed down through the female line.) So far 1,000 Australians have donated DNA to the effort, and 144 soldiers have been identified by name. The scientific, ethical and privacy concerns surrounding this project are fascinating. But before digging in to those, I think it’s important to address why people (via their governments) are willing to put so much effort and resources into identifying dead bodies in the first place.

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Only Human, November 2014.

Uprooted, Again

For me, the hardest part of writing a story is finding the end. It often feels arbitrary, or artificial, or both. A person’s story isn’t necessarily over, after all, just because I’m ready to write it down. But I can’t put it off forever, either. Editors are waiting, and my unpaid bills. So I squeak out an ending and just cross my fingers that a better one — the real one — doesn’t show itself the day after publication.

Earlier this month, I heard the real ending for a story I wrote more than a year ago about people who use DNA to fill in branches of their family tree. It’s a doozy, and has me thinking hard, again, about the profound consequences of so-called “recreational genetics.”

In 2008 the story’s protagonist, 56-year-old Cheryl Whittle from rural Virginia, heard about DNA testing on Oprah. Just for kicks she bought a kit for herself, her husband, and two of her siblings. When the results came back in her email inbox, she discovered that the man who raised her, the man she had thought was her father, wasn’t. He had died in 1989, several years after Cheryl’s mom, and few people were still alive who had known them at the time of Cheryl’s conception. Thus Cheryl began a long, circuitous, frustrating, emotional quest in genetic genealogy to find out who her father really was.

When my story ended (spoiler alert), Cheryl had been through one emotional roller coaster after another. Her search had angered some of her immediate family members, and greatly disappointed a woman who longed to be Cheryl’s biological sister but turned out to be a distant cousin. As of August 2013, when my reporting wound down, Cheryl had made contact with another possible sister who refused to get a DNA test because she was worried about tarnishing the memory of her late father.

After my story was published, Cheryl and I kept in touch on Facebook. She often Liked my articles, and I commented on photos of her new great-grandchild. She patched things up with her immediate family, and seemed to be healing from some of the bruises of genetic genealogy. But despite everything she had been through, she didn’t give up the search for her father.

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Only Human, October 2014.

It’s Thanks to Evolution That No Two Faces Are Alike

From bug eyes to aquiline noses, square jaws to chin dimples, no two faces are alike. That diversity may have evolved to make it easier to recognize other people, researchers reported on Tuesday.

The shape and configuration of a human face are much more variable, compared with other body parts, the study found. What’s more, genes that have been linked to face structure vary more than DNA in other regions of the body. This suggests that the forces of evolution have selected for facial diversity, perhaps to make individuals more recognizable to other people, the researchers say.

“An individual may actually benefit from having a unique face,” says lead investigator Michael Sheehan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s like evolving a name tag.”

There are many situations in which it might be evolutionarily costly to be confused with another person, Sheehan notes, such as if an enraged neighbor mistakes you for their enemy. “Or maybe you’ve done something fantastic and someone wants to give you a reward, but they give it to someone else instead,” Sheehan notes. “Being cryptic could be harmful.”

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National Geographic News, September 2014.

From Ancient Genomes to Ancient Epigenomes

Late last year, scientists unveiled the complete genome of a female Neanderthal whose 130,000-year-old toe bone had been found in a cave in Siberia. As it turned out, her sequence of some 3 billion DNA letters was not all that much different from mine or yours. The researchers identified only about 35,000 places in the genome where all modern humans differ from our ancient hominid cousins. And only 3,000 of those were changes that could impact how genes are turned on and off.

But if our DNA is so similar to Neanderthals, why were they so…different? They were brawnier than our ancestors, with short but muscular limbs, and big noses and eyebrows. They didn’t carry certain genetic variants that put modern humans at risk of autoimmune disease and celiac disease. And although they lived alongside our ancestors as the latter migrated into Europe, for some reason the Neanderthals didn’t survive.

Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the way the Neanderthal genome actually worked — a complex process that depends not only on the underlying DNA code, but on the way genes get turned on and off.

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Only Human, August 2014.