Welcome to the Altmetric High Five for August! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
Apart from being the start of a devastating hurricane season in the United States, the month of August 2017 was all about human health in media coverage of scientific papers.
Paper #1. Fats before Carbs
Our first High Five paper is “Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE),” published in The Lancet in August 2017. In an epidemiological cohort study of individuals aged 35–70 years, researchers found that a diet high in carbohydrates was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat intake and intake of individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality.
“Total fat and types of fat were not associated with cardiovascular disease, myocardial infarction, or cardiovascular disease mortality, whereas saturated fat had an inverse association with stroke.” – Dehghan et al. 2017
Over 100 news outlets covered the study, including predominantly online and medical news outlets.
“Results from some large-scale new studies that use data from around the globe don’t so much disrupt our current understanding as build upon it. The research confirms that there really needn’t be any upper limit on fat, and that carbs should be eaten in moderation and possibly cut down on.” – Alice G. Walton, Forbes
“So go for dairy, olive oil and even the occasional wagyu beef burger, have lots of grains, fruit and vegetables, and lay off the sweet stuff – especially the empty calories in the 16 teaspoonfuls of trouble in sugar-sweetened soft drinks.” – John Funder, Professor in Department of Medicine at Monash University, quoted in Gizmodo
Readers should remember, however, that the data this paper presents is correlational data, meaning that it doesn’t tell us anything about cause and effect. But regardless, it’s worth laying off the soda. Other researchers, however, pointed out that the types of foods you consume, however, might be more important than strictly the amounts of carbs and facts in these foods.
Paper #2. Heart This, But Mind This
Our second High Five paper is “Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos,” published in Nature this August. The researchers describe the targeted correction of a germline mutation via genome editing using the CRISPR–Cas9 technique.
“Here we describe the correction of the heterozygous MYBPC3 mutation in human preimplantation embryos with precise CRISPR–Cas9-based targeting accuracy and high homology-directed repair efficiency by activating an endogenous, germline-specific DNA repair response. […] The efficiency, accuracy and safety of the approach presented suggest that it has potential to be used for the correction of heritable mutations in human embryos by complementing preimplantation genetic diagnosis. However, much remains to be considered before clinical applications, including the reproducibility of the technique with other heterozygous mutations.”
Over 250 news outlets covered the study, which also attracted attention from a whopping 4,000+ Twitter users. The study also sparked online debates about the ethics of human embryo genome editing, as seen in this NYT op-ed.
The Washington Post headlined, “First human embryo editing experiment in U.S. ‘corrects’ gene for heart condition.” Science News headlined, “Gene editing of human embryos gets rid of a mutation that causes heart failure.”
“Molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 corrected a gene defect that can lead to heart failure. The gene editor fixed the mutation in about 72 percent of tested embryos, researchers report August 2 in Nature. That repair rate is much higher than expected. Work with skin cells reprogrammed to mimic embryos had suggested the mutation would be repaired in fewer than 30 percent of cells.” – Tina Saey, Science News
“In the study, sperm from a man who carries a mutation in the MYBPC3 gene was injected into eggs from women with healthy copies of that gene. […] Along with the man’s sperm, researchers injected into the egg the DNA-cutting enzyme Cas9 and a piece of RNA to direct the enzyme to snip the mutant copy of the gene. […] embryos used the mother’s healthy copy of the gene to repair the cut.” – Tina Saey, Science News
- Scientists successfully used CRISPR to fix a mutation that causes disease. This is huge. By Eliza Barclay, Vox
- Scientists Doubt Results of CRISPR’d Embryos, Aggie Mika, The Scientist
Paper #3. Instagramming our Mental Health
Our next High Five paper is “Instagram photos reveal predictive markers of depression,” published in EPJ Data Science in August. Based on Instagram data from 166 individuals and machine learning, researchers identified markers of depression and used those to create models that outperformed human ratings of photos as happy, sad, etc. as well as general practitioners’ average unassisted diagnostic success rate for depression.
Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study, including many medial and tech news outlets, and also attracted lots of Twitter attention. Buzzfeed covered the study, headlining “These Scientists Have Made An Algorithm That Might Be Able To Predict If You’re Depressed.”
“Scientists have come up with a computer program that can guess whether someone is depressed just by looking at their Instagram photos, correctly identifying people with depression 70% of the time. The study involved 166 people who shared over 40,000 Instagram photos in total with the researchers, alongside their mental health histories. About half of the participants had been diagnosed with depression over the last three years. The computer program, created by a pair of researchers in the US, looked at the colours in the participants’ Instagram photos, the number of faces in the photos, and the likes and comments each photo got. They found that depressed people tended to post pictures that were bluer, darker, and greyer. And when they posted pictures with faces in, there tended to be fewer faces per photo.” – Kelly Oakes, Buzzfeed
“It seems to be the case that people who are experiencing depression see the world in a darker, bluer fashion quite literally, and they spend less time in social groups.” – Study author Chris Danforth.
An important note: nearly half of the recruited participants for the study dropped out in lieu of providing their Instagram data, which could bias the findings.
- Instagram Accounts May Provide Clues to Depression, By Jacob Brogan, Slate
- How Cutting Edge Technology Can Help With Depression, via Forbes
Paper #4. Colon and Rectal Cancers Affect Young People Too
Our next High Five paper is “Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013,” freely accessible in August 2017 issue of Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The researchers found an increase in colorectal cancer rates, especially in patients younger than 50 years old, indicating that earlier screenings might be necessary.
“Age-specific CRC risk has escalated back to the level of those born circa 1890 for contemporary birth cohorts, underscoring the need for increased awareness among clinicians and the general public, as well as etiologic research to elucidate causes for the trend.” – Siegel et al. 2017
Nearly 300 news outlets covered the study, including many broadcast news outlets. As Forbes headlined, colorectal cancers may not be the “old man’s diseases” that we thought they were. The Washington Post headlined, “Colorectal cancer rates rising sharply among Gen X and millennials.”
“Rates of colon and rectal cancer are rising sharply among young and middle-aged Americans, at the same time that they continue to decline for adults 55 and older, according to a startling new study that is sparking questions about whether screening should start earlier. […] The study, which included scientists at the NCI [National Cancer Institute], didn’t determine the reason for the shift. But [American Cancer Society researcher and study author Rebecca Siegel] suggested one explanation might be a complex interaction involving the same factors that have contributed to the obesity epidemic — changes in diet, a sedentary lifestyle, excess weight and low fiber consumption.” – Laurie McGinley, The Washington Post
- Why Are More Young Americans Getting Colon Cancer? By Richard Harris, NPR
Paper #5. A Blood Test to Detect Cancer?
Our final High Five paper is “Direct detection of early-stage cancers using circulating tumor DNA,” published in Science Translational Medicine in August.
“The detection and analysis of cell-free DNA in patients’ blood are becoming increasingly accepted in oncology. However, this approach has generally been applied for the monitoring of patients with existing tumors. It has not been useful for early diagnosis of cancer because of insufficient sensitivity to detect really small tumors that only shed minute quantities of DNA into the blood, as well as difficulties with identifying cancer-associated genetic changes without knowing what mutations are present in the primary tumor. A method developed by Phallen et al., called targeted error correction sequencing, addresses both of these limitations and demonstrates the feasibility of detecting circulating cell-free DNA from many early tumors, suggesting its potential use for cancer screening.” – AAAS Lay Abstract
Over 120 news outlets covered the study, including mostly TV and medical news outlets. The Baltimore Sun headlined, “Hopkins scientists using blood tests and DNA to detect early stage cancer.”
“The Hopkins scientists’ test could identify the cancers before people usually are diagnosed. This could be crucial for improving the survival rates for ovarian and colorectal cancers, which typically are found in later stages when treatment is not as successful.” – Andrea K. McDaniels, The Baltimore Sun
However, the test was only conducted on a relatively small number of patients, and only successfully identified slightly over 50% of cancer patients for various types of cancer. These blood tests need a lot more work, and a higher success rate, to effectively complement traditional tests for cancer.