Snapshot of Science: Genetic Insights into Our Food Choices, New Diagnostic Device for Lymphoma and More

Snapshot twitter banner AugustWhat’s new in research at Mass General? Here’s a snapshot of studies recently published in top-tier scientific journals:

Effect of folic acid on child brain development

Have you ever noticed that everything from cereal to pasta to pancake mix has folic acid listed as an ingredient?  This is due to a government-mandated folic acid fortification in grain products that was rolled out in the late 1990s. In a recent study, a team led by Joshua Roffman, MD, Director of the Brain Genomics Lab in the Department of Psychiatry, looked at nearly 1,400 children who were born just before, during, or after this rollout.

Using MRI scans, they found that children and adolescents who were exposed to fortification during pregnancy showed changes in brain development that protected against psychotic symptoms. Given previous evidence that suggests risk for schizophrenia, autism, and other serious mental illness begin in the womb, these new findings, published in JAMA Psychiatry, open the door to a range of new studies that could lead to strategies for using folic acid to protect against the onset of mental illness, similar to other public health interventions such as vaccines.

New genetic insights related to food choices

If you’re having a hard time saying no to that extra piece of cake, it might not be due to a lack of willpower. A new study suggests that, in addition to demographic, cultural and psychological factors, our genes may make some of us more likely to crave unhealthy foods than others.

Jordi Merino, PhD, from the Department of Medicine, and his team have identified two new genetic variants that influence dietary intake, and confirm two previously known variants. These findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could improve our understanding of appetite control, help identify individuals who are at higher risk of unhealthy food choices, and point to new targets for drugs to control eating behavior.

Analyzing and comparing gut bacteria in mothers and newborns

While you can instantly tell if a baby has their mother’s eyes, there are other shared traits that aren’t as easy to see. Infants acquire their microbiomes (the community of bacteria in their gut) in part from their mothers, but precisely how the microbiome is established at birth and develops during early life are relatively unknown.

This study, led by Ramnik Xavier, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in the Department of Gastroenterology, examines the microbiomes of 44 infants and their mothers and provides a comprehensive analysis of which bacteria are transferred from mother to infant and how gut microbial communities develop during a baby’s early days. Their findings were published in Cell Host Microbe.

New low-cost point-of-care device for diagnosing aggressive lymphoma

In resource-poor countries, the pathologists and equipment needed to diagnose disease are often in short supply. Cesar Castro, MD, and a team from the Center for Systems Biology have developed a portable, fully automated device that has been ‘trained’ by a computer-driven algorithm to analyze patient samples and separate cancerous and non-cancerous cells.

The team found that the device provided an accurate diagnosis 95% of the time. This new approach could ease the demand on existing pathology services and equipment and engage more individuals in proper cancer care. Description of the device and their findings from the validation study were recently published in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

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