Welcome to the Altmetric High Five! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
This month our papers don’t seem to have an overarching theme necessarily – but they are all striking in their own way.
Paper #1. Medical Error is Underreported
Our first High Five paper is “Medical error—the third leading cause of death in the US,” published in the British Medical Journal in May 2016. Over 300 news outlets picked up the analysis paper, which was also mentioned in thousands of tweets.
The paper analyzes previous literature and data on medical error and mortality, to identify the contribution of medical error to US deaths. According to the authors of the paper, deaths attributable in some way to medical error are underreported.
The Atlantic headlined, “Are Medical Errors Deadlier Than Strokes and Alzheimer’s?”
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine says medical errors should rank as the third-leading cause of death in the United States—and highlights how shortcomings in tracking vital statistics may hinder research and keep the problem out of the public eye. […] Based on an analysis of prior research, the Johns Hopkins study estimates that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. On the CDC’s official list, that would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths. – The Atlantic
According to this new analysis, medical error ranks just behind heart disease and cancer as the most common cause of death in the US.
Martin Makary, a professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who led the research, said in an interview that the category includes everything from bad doctors to more systemic issues such as communication breakdowns when patients are handed off from one department to another. – The Washington Post
However, some news reports and blog posts covering this paper highlighted the difficultly of obtaining an accurate estimate of medical errors resulting in death. The estimated contribution of medical error to US deaths depends on how you define medical error. In many cases, it would be very difficult to prove that a given medical error led to death. However, measuring the extent of the problem, when it comes to medical error resulting in death, is a necessary first step in minimizing medical harm.
Paper #2. A Second Skin
Our second High Five paper is “An elastic second skin,” a study published in Nature Materials this month. In the paper, the study authors report “the synthesis and application of an elastic, wearable crosslinked polymer layer (XPL) that mimics the properties of normal, youthful skin.” In a pilot human study, the researchers examined the performance of this new wearable crosslinked polymer layer. They conclude that the new material “may offer advanced solutions to compromised skin barrier function, pharmaceutical delivery and wound dressings.”
Over 250 news outlets picked up the study. Many articles focused on the new material’s ability to reduce the appearance of wrinkles.
Time magazine headlined, “Researchers Develop ‘Second Skin’ That Gets Rid of Wrinkles.”
Researchers have developed an invisible polymer film that they say can reduce wrinkles and under-eye bags. A team of scientists from Harvard and M.I.T., all of whom are investors in the company that paid for the research, say they’ve found a “second skin” that can help reduce the appearance of unwanted lines, as well as treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, according to the New York Times. The new material, made of safe and commonly used chemicals, temporarily protects and tightens skin, researchers say. – Melissa Chan, Time
MIT News Video: https://youtu.be/AkpT5BihMio
Shalini Saxena wrote for ArsTechnica:
Our skin provides a protective barrier against things like extreme temperatures, toxins, microorganisms, radiation, and mechanical force. But as skin ages, it becomes weaker, more sensitive, and less able to repair itself. Aging also results in things we don’t like, such as the formation of wrinkles or sagging skin. […] In an investigation recently published in Nature Materials, a team of scientists have developed a synthetic skin that can be worn invisibly, restoring both the mechanical and aesthetic characteristics of normal, youthful skin. – Shalini Saxena
- “Second Skin” for Wrinkle Reduction, Drug Delivery, by Catherine Offord, The Scientist
- Scientists Just Invented a Silicone “Second Skin” That Makes You Look Younger, by William Herkewitz, Popular Mechanics
Paper #3. Ancient Beer
Our next High Five paper is about, well, really old beer. “Revealing a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in China” was published in PNAS in May 2016.
This research reveals a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in which broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and tubers were fermented together. To our knowledge, our data provide the earliest direct evidence of in situ beer production in China, showing that an advanced beer-brewing technique was established around 5,000 y ago. – Wang et al. 2016
Over 200 news outlets and a dozen blogs picked up the study. The New York Times headlined, “China’s Craft Breweries Find They May Have a 5,000-Year-Old Relative.”
A group of researchers in China and the United States have analyzed pottery vessels discovered at a site in Shaanxi Province and determined that they are the first direct evidence of a beer-brewing operation. And the ingredients they discovered are as eclectic as any trendy brewpub’s: broomcorn millet, tubers and a grain known as Job’s tears. The scholars’ paper, which was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), says the mix of ingredients was probably achieved through trial and error. – Austin Ramzy, NYT
What’s the big deal about old beer? For one, the authors of the study argue, it is likely that beer “pushed development of more complex societies in China.”
The exotic foreign drink may have helped to foster social interactions and reinforce hierarchies, the researchers wrote in the study. And their dig site indicates that Chinese brewers had already mastered many of the beer making techniques used today. – Rachel Feltman, The Washington Post
Paper #4. Ugly Bacteria
Our next High Five paper isn’t as fun as really old beer or elastic second skin. It really isn’t fun at all. In a paper published online this month in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland report the discovery of new strain of E. coli resistant to the last-resort antibiotic colistin. The researchers report “the presence of mcr-1 in an E. coli cultured from a patient with a urinary tract infection (UTI) in the United States.”
Science News headlined, “Bacteria resistant to last-resort antibiotic appears in U.S.”
A 49-year-old woman has tested positive for a strain of Escherichia coli resistant to the antibiotic colistin, researchers report May 26 inAntimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. It’s the first time in the United States that scientists have found bacteria carrying a gene for colistin resistance known as mrc-1, write study coauthor Patrick McGann of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., and colleagues. But perhaps even more alarming is that the gene rides on a transferable loop of DNA called a plasmid. – Meghan Rosen, Science News
But amid media and social media headlines such as “Ultimate Superbug Reaches USA” and “Another Nail in the Antibiotic Coffin,” some science writers called for more responsible reporting on this finding.
Beth Mole, writing for ArsTechnica, points out that this is not the first time researchers have found a person in the US carrying bacteria “resistant to antibiotics of last resort,” nor is it the first time that researcher have found bacteria resistant to colistin. Mole also points out that we don’t know how long mcr-1 has been floating around in bacterial plasmids, and it could have been spreading slowly for some time now.
Thursday’s report of a mcr-1-based colistin-resistant bacterial infection in a US patient is concerning, but unsurprising. The plasmid based resistant gene threatens to spread to other bacteria, potentially to ones that are already resistant to last resort drugs, such as CRE. However, the trajectory of mcr-1‘s emergence and its contribution to drug resistant infection trends is not yet clear. For now, the case serves mostly to highlight the ongoing crisis of rising antibiotic resistance and furthers the need for better stewardship of old antibiotics and development of new ones. – Beth Mole, ArsTechnica
- First Drug-Resistant Superbug Detected in U.S. Could Mean the “End of the Road” for Antibiotics, by Elliot Hannon, Slate
- How Worried Should We Be About the ‘Nightmare Bacteria’ Making Headlines? By Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard
- To Fight Superbugs, Fight Poverty, by Jason Silverstein, Public Health Perspectives Blog, PLOS
Paper #5. Fat Dogs
Our final High Five paper looks after our canine friends. In an open access paper published in Cell Metabolism, researchers describe how a particular genetic mutation in Labrador retrievers disrupts energy homeostasis and thus is associated with weight gain, and food motivation.
The mutation is significantly more common in Labrador retrievers selected to become assistance dogs than pets. […] The deletion in POMC (pro-opiomelanocortin) is a significant modifier of weight and appetite in Labrador retrievers and FCRs and may influence other behavioral traits. – Raffan et al. 2016
Over 150 news outlets picked up the study, which was also shared notably on Facebook. The Washington Post headlined, “Some dogs can’t help inhaling kibble and getting fat — it’s in their genes.”
“What we’ve found in the study is that there really is a hard-wired reason for some Labradors to be completely obsessed by food.” – Study author Eleanor Raffan, as quoted in The Washington Post
Only about one in four labradors have this mutation (same for the flat coat retriever), so other factors may be involved. However, the mutation was found to occur in about three out of every four assistance dogs. It’s possible that these dogs are more likely to be selected for assistance-dog breeding programs, because their insatiable desire for food makes them more trainable. […]Raffan said that it’s still possible to own a dog with this mutation and keep them slim. She advises owners to be more rigorous about portion control, and to resist their “big brown eyes” when they plead for food. – George Dvorsky, Gizmodo