Altmetric Blog

November High Five – Feel-Good Scientific Research

Paige Jarreau, 30th November 2017

Welcome to the Altmetric High Five for November! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.

Our papers this month feature mostly feel-good findings, but sometimes with a twist. For example, researchers this month describe a brand new species of orangutan… that is already endangered. Read on for more good news… with a twist.



Dogs bowing to initiate play. Credit: Thomas Zimmermann, Wikimedia.

Paper #1. Man’s best friend

Our first High Five paper bring great news for dog lovers. The study, “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study,” appeared in Scientific Reports this month. The authors analyzed the association of dog ownership with the incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death in a national-wide cohort in Sweden.

“Dogs may be beneficial in reducing cardiovascular risk in their owners by providing social support and motivation for physical activity. […] In single- and multiple-person households, dog ownership (13.1%) was associated with lower risk of death and CVD death. […] Ownership of hunting breed dogs was associated with lowest risk of CVD. […] In conclusion, dog ownership appears to be associated with lower risk of CVD in single-person households and lower mortality in the general population.” – Mubanga et al., 2017

Over 200 news outlets, including many broadcast news outlets, covered the study. Some did a better job than others in accurately describing the potential link between dog ownership and lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. Of course, unhealthy dogs can also spread diseases to their humans, a fact that Judy Stone pointed out for Forbes magazine online. But that aside, dog owners may receive health and quality of life benefits from man’s best friend.

NPR headlined, “Dog Owners Have Lower Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease, Swedish Data Suggest.”

“Dogs shower their owners with affection and demand walks on a regular basis. And according to medical researchers, a corresponding link between dog ownership and heart health – previously called “probable” by experts – Is supported by Swedish data. An examination of Sweden’s national records – spanning more than 3.4 million people and 12 years – found that registered dog owners had a lower rate of cardiovascular disease and a lower risk of death. […] Comparing the records, they found a reduced risk of heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease, and death from any cause among registered dog owners. The trend remained even when controlled for age, sex, education and socioeconomic status, among other factors.” – Camila Domonoske, NPR

Who wants to go adopt a dog now?

More reading:



Keratinocytes (stained green) in the skin of a mouse. Credit: M. Menacho-Márquez.

Paper #2. Skin deep

Our next High Five paper is “Regeneration of the entire human epidermis using transgenic stem cells,” published in Nature this month. The authors used autologous transgenic keratinocyte cultures to regenerate an entire, fully functional epidermis on a seven-year-old child suffering from junctional epidermolysis bullosa (JEB), a disease that causes chronic skin wounds and skin cancers.

Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study, many with brilliant headlines. Forbes headlined, “Transgenic Stem Cells Lead To A Genuine Miracle Cure.” NPR Shots headlined, “Genetically Altered Skin Saves A Boy Dying Of A Rare Disease.”

“Sometimes I read a science paper and I just say ‘Holy cow, this is amazing.’ I don’t have that reaction very often, but I did last week. Amidst all the hypethe hope, and the controversy about gene therapy and stem cell research, some very real progress is being made. […] Last week, scientists reported in the journal Nature how they saved the life of a 7-year-old boy using transgenic stem cells. Twenty years ago, this would have been science fiction. Even today it is nothing short of astonishing.” – Steven Salzberg, Forbes

Other headlines about the study included “Scientists save child’s life by growing him new skin,” “‘Butterfly child’ given life-saving skin,” “A Rare Genetic Skin Disease Almost Killed This 7-Year-Old. Then Scientists Reconstructed 80% Of His Skin,” and “The future is here: Genetically engineered stem cells save a patient.”

“[Study author] De Luca used a virus to insert a healthy gene into cells taken from the boy’s skin. Some of those cells, stem cells, multiply indefinitely. So De Luca was able to grow entire sheets of engineered epidermis, which were shipped to the hospital in Germany. […] [The boy] needed to have 80 percent of his skin replaced with grafts of this genetically modified material. It took two operations, both in the fall of 2015. After eight months in the intensive care unit, the boy was well enough to go home. And, two years later, he is in school, even playing soccer.” – Richard Harris, NPR



Cheops pyramid. Credit: Nina, via Wikipedia.

Paper #3. Peering into the Great Pyramid… with cosmic-ray muons

Our next High Five paper is “Discovery of a big void in Khufu’s Pyramid by observation of cosmic-ray muons,” published in Nature this month. The study authors literally used modern particle physics to shed new light on one of the world’s greatest archaeological wonders.

“The Great Pyramid or Khufu’s Pyramid was built on the Giza Plateau (Egypt) during the IVth dynasty by the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BC. Despite being one of the oldest and largest monuments on Earth, there is no consensus about how it was built. To better understand its internal structure, we imaged the pyramid using muons, which are by-products of cosmic rays that are only partially absorbed by stone.”

The study authors report the discovery of a very large, mysterious void above the Grand Gallery, which constitutes the first major inner structure found in the Great Pyramid since the 19th century. While evidence of the void existed previously, the new visualization method based on particle physics provides greater detail about its structure.

Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study, which was also highly tweeted. Forbes headlined, “Mysterious Void In Great Pyramid Discovered Using Cosmic Rays.” NPR headlined, “Scientists Say They’ve Found Hidden Space In Great Pyramid Of Giza.”

Mehdi Tayoubi, with the HIP Institute in Paris, explains that he and his colleagues wanted to investigate the pyramid using the best available non-destructive analytical techniques. They settled on a type of imaging that involves muons, which are tiny particles, like electrons.” – Nell Grennfieldboyce, NPR

“The real question, however, is what’s inside the big room? Is it a hoard of valuable, rare treasure from the era of the Fourth Dynasty? A special room for ceremonial purposes or part of the burial rituals for Khufu? The deceased pharaoh’s missing mummy itself? The discovery really just creates more questions than answers.” – Neel V. Patel, Slate

More reading:



Coffee beans. Credit: Isai Symens, via Wikimedia.

Paper #4. Coffee time

More good news, for coffee drinkers. Our next High Five paper is “Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes” published in BMJ this month. Based on an umbrella review of meta-analyses of observational and interventional research on health outcomes related to coffee consumption, the study authors conclude that coffee consumption is more often associated with benefit than harm for a range of health outcomes across exposures.

“Coffee consumption seems generally safe within usual levels of intake, with summary estimates indicating largest risk reduction for various health outcomes at three to four cups a day, and more likely to benefit health than harm. Robust randomised controlled trials are needed to understand whether the observed associations are causal.” – Poole et al. 2017

Nearly 130 news outlets covered the study, which also received significant attention on social media (especially among, just guessing here, coffee drinkers!) The Guardian headlined, “Three coffees a day linked to a range of health benefits.”

“People who drink three to four cups of coffee a day are more likely to see health benefits than problems, experiencing lower risks of premature death and heart disease than those who abstain, scientists have said. The research, which collated evidence from more than 200 previous studies, also found coffee consumption was linked to lower risks of diabetes, liver disease, dementia and some cancers.” – The Guardian Staff

As expected, health benefits of coffee consumption may be dampened by consumption in the form of sugary, fattening coffee-based drinks. But if you enjoy black coffee… perhaps have another cup!



Males of each orangutan species (from left to right): Bornean, Sumatran, Tapanuli. Credit: Eric Kilby Aiwok Tim Laman, via Wikipedia.

Paper #5. New Orangutan on the block

Our final High Five paper, “Morphometric, Behavioral, and Genomic Evidence for a New Orangutan Species,” appeared in Current Biology this month. The study authors use morphology and genetic analysis to describe a new species of great apes, the Tapanuli orangutan Pongo tapanuliensis. But the good news may end there. With fewer than 800 individuals, P. tapanuliensis is among the most endangered great apes.

“Six extant species of non-human great apes are currently recognized: Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, and chimpanzees and bonobos. However, large gaps remain in our knowledge of fine-scale variation in hominoid morphology, behavior, and genetics, and aspects of great ape taxonomy remain in flux. This is particularly true for orangutans (genus: Pongo), the only Asian great apes and phylogenetically our most distant relatives among extant hominids. […] We show that an isolated population from Batang Toru, at the southernmost range limit of extant Sumatran orangutans south of Lake Toba, is distinct from other northern Sumatran and Bornean populations.” – Nater et al. 2017

Nearly 200 news outlets covered the study. Popular Science headlined, “We may have a new cousin in this orangutan species—but it’s in big trouble.”

“Most of the organisms that have eluded scientific detection are, well, elusive, so most of them are small or incredibly alien in their habitat. But this week, researchers made an announcement that hits unusually close to home: for the first time in almost a century, we’ve added another great ape to the family. According to a study published in Current Biology, a small group of individuals in Sumatra represents a third, previously unknown species of orangutan.” – Andrew Walmsley, Popular Science

The new orangutan species was discovered after researchers and veterinarians tried in vain to rescue a male that had been badly beaten after a conflict with local villagers. Based on a close analysis of the individual’s skeleton and genetic analysis, researchers realized that this orangutan actually belonged to a distinct species – and a very rare one. Ed Yong tells the story beautifully for The Atlantic.

More reading:

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