The Week That Wasn't: Alzheimer's Acid, Mourning & Melanoma, Preterm Epigenetics

Ellie Kincaid


March 06, 2020

You may have recently seen articles about a dietary supplement with promise for treating Alzheimer disease, an increased risk of dying from melanoma after a romantic partner's death, and the epigenetic signatures of preterm birth. Here's why you didn't see them on Medscape Medical News.

Supplement Tested Against Alzheimer's

Researchers studying the metabolic dysregulation that occurs in brain cells during the early stages of Alzheimer disease have pinpointed impairments in the pathway of chemical reactions that produce the amino acid l-serine, they report in the journal Cell Metabolism. The researchers fed l-serine, which is sold commercially as a dietary supplement, to mice with a model of Alzheimer disease and found that the supplement "prevents both synaptic and behavioral deficits," they write. "Our findings reveal that astrocytic glycolysis controls cognitive functions and suggest oral l-serine as a ready-to-use therapy for [Alzheimer disease]."

The idea of a widely available, inexpensive, and "ready-to-use" treatment for Alzheimer disease is appealing, but that doesn't mean it works. Many experimental therapies that show promise in mice don't have the same effects in humans. Scientists have more work to do to find out whether l-serine may be beneficial for patients with Alzheimer disease. One small trial is in progress. Without more evidence that's directly relevant to the patients our clinician readers are treating, we didn't think it was necessary to draw attention to this research.

Melanoma Risks Increase When Mourning

The death of a person's romantic partner is associated with a change in their later risk of dying from melanoma, according to a new study in the British Journal of Dermatology. Researchers analyzed two cohorts of people in the United Kingdom and Denmark whose partners had died. They compared the persons' risks for being diagnosed with and for dying from melanoma to the risks for people who were similar but who had not lost a partner. They found that people whose partners had died had a comparatively lower risk for a melanoma diagnosis but a higher risk for mortality from melanoma.

It bears repeating that observational studies such as this one can identify correlations but cannot establish causal relationships between two variables ― in this case, the death of a partner and the risk of being diagnosed with or of dying from melanoma. It's not clear how the information from this study would be useful for clinicians, so we didn't consider it newsworthy.

Epigenetics of Preterm Birth

Epigenetics — the study of modifications to the genome that annotate but don't actually change the genetic code — is a buzzy area of scientific exploration and is known to be involved in directing fetal development. Researchers investigating associations between epigenetic changes and gestational age performed a meta-analysis of DNA methylation, one type of epigenetic change, in more than a dozen cohorts of newborns and children described in previous studies.

They found many sites of DNA methylation in the genome that were associated with gestational age at birth. "Our results provide a comprehensive catalogue of differential methylation in relation to this important factor, which may serve as utility to the growing community of researchers studying the developmental origins of adult disease," the authors write in the journal article describing their findings.

The study findings could help researchers understand how gestational age at birth is linked to health effects later in life, the authors write, but an application to clinical practice is still far off. The results of this study wouldn't help a clinician treat the patient in front of them, so we didn't think it was need-to-know information for our readers.

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