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December 20, 2011

In Research

Some muscular dystrophy patients at increased risk for cancer

muscle cell nuclei
Deposits of toxic RNA (red) are seen here inside muscle cell nuclei (blue) from an individual with myotonic dystrophy.

People who have the most common type of adult muscular dystrophy also have a higher risk of getting cancer, according to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The team found that patients who have myotonic muscular dystrophy are at increased risk primarily for four types of cancer: brain, ovary, colon, and the uterine lining known as the endometrium. The team also found a possible increased risk for some other types of cancer, including cancer of the eye, thyroid, pancreas, and other female reproductive organs.

Physicians estimate that approximately 40,000 Americans have myotonic dystrophy, an inherited disease that is marked by progressive muscle weakness.

Neurologists like study author Richard Moxley, director of the University’s Neuromuscular Disease Center and professor of neurology, have long known that patients with myotonic dystrophy are at greater risk of a rare type of skin growth, and they know that skin cancer occurs more often as well in some families with the disease. Moxley teamed with cancer experts at the National Cancer Institute as well as scientists in Sweden and Denmark to study the link between muscular dystrophy and cancer more closely.

The team used detailed registries about the health of people with myotonic dystrophy to look closely at the records of 1,658 patients. Among that group, 104 people developed cancer—twice the number of cases that would be expected in the overall population.

“Our findings suggest that patients with myotonic dystrophy need to be absolutely vigilant about cancer screening, particularly colon cancer screening,” says Moxley, who heads the University’s Senator Paul D. Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Cooperative Research Center, one of six research centers funded by the National Institutes of Health.


New sources found for accumulated dust on Chinese Loess Plateau

Geologists have long thought the loess—or fine silt—that accumulated on the Chinese Loess Plateau was carried on winds from desert regions to the northwest over the past 2.6 million years. New research indicates the loess may actually have come from due west, which would change conventional thinking about wind patterns during that period.
A team of geologists from the United States and China—led by Rochester—compared the composition of uranium and lead in zircon crystals excavated from the plateau and potential source sites. The scientists found that the ages of the crystals from the plateau matched with samples from the northern Tibetan Plateau and the Qaidam Basin, both of which are due west.

The results have been published in a recent issue of the journal Geology.

“The data suggest a dramatic shift in atmospheric winds,” says lead author Alex Pullen, postdoctoral fellow in Earth and Environmental Sciences.

By testing for the ages of the embedded zircon crystals, the researchers determined that the loess came from the west during recent glacial periods, which suggests that the atmospheric jet streams shifted toward the equator during those periods. That would mean there have been alternating northwesterly and westerly sources for the loess during warm interglacial and cold glacial periods, respectively. The geological team says additional studies of ancient soil (paleosol) layers of the plateau are needed to test that theory.

“The research should help us better understand how the earth behaves as a system,” says Pullen. “With that knowledge, we’ll be able to improve our climate models.”

Rochester research identifies health disparities with deaf ASL users

Using communication tools that enabled deaf people to identify health priorities in their own community, a University survey found higher rates of obesity, partner violence, and suicide, but lower rates of smoking, than in the general population.

The survey results, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health, represent the first time a deaf community has used its own data to assess its health status. Traditionally, deaf people who use American Sign Language (ASL) are excluded from health research and thus medically underserved, the study noted.
Researchers collaborated with members of the Rochester deaf community and designed a linguistically and culturally appropriate ASL surveillance tool.

“It is now possible, through surveys such as the one described here, to include deaf ASL users in public health surveillance programs,” says Thomas Pearson, director of the National Center for Deaf Health Research at the Medical Center. “This is a monumental step toward eliminating health disparities and advancing the health of deaf people.”

The survey of 339 deaf adults took place over six months in 2008. More than 88 percent reported being deaf since before age 4 years old. Results from the deaf respondents were compared with 2006 data from a random telephone survey conducted in the general adult population of the Rochester metropolitan area.

The research identified some deaf community strengths, such as low smoking rates (9 percent of the deaf respondents reported being current smokers, compared with 18 percent in the general population). It also identified some health inequities:

Obesity: Deaf adults were more likely to be obese (34 percent, versus 26 percent in the general population).

Suicide risk: Deaf respondents were more than five times more likely to report attempting suicide in the past year (2.2 percent, compared with 0.4 percent in the general population).

Violence: Rates of partner violence and forcible sex were higher among the deaf survey participants. For example, 21 percent of the deaf respondents younger than age 65 said they had been physically abused in their lifetime, versus 14 percent that age in the general population. Nearly 21 percent of deaf respondents reported being forced to have sex in their lifetime, compared with about 6 percent in the general population.


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