Surgery to treat diabetes, circulating biomarkers for breast cancer, a ‘gotcha’ moment for superbugs, and tracing the plague’s roots. This week in Abstract Science.

Surgery to Treat Diabetes

(WSJ, 11/2/15, Shirley Wang)

With data suggesting that weight-loss surgery might help resolve Type 2 diabetes better than intensive diet and exercise alone, scientists are exploring different surgical procedures to treat this common metabolic disorder. Some scientists are looking at bypassing or intervening in the duodenum, which connects the stomach to the lower part of the intestine and produces several hormones that aid in food intake and blood-sugar control. Other scientists think getting food through the intestines faster, or stimulating a part of the lower gastrointestinal tract called the ileum is the better route. These strategies were discussed recently at the World Congress on Interventional Therapies for Type 2 Diabetes and Diabetes Surgery Summit, in London.

Circulating Biomarkers

(GEN, 11/3/15, Mary F. Lopez)

Tissue testing during long-term breast cancer management is impractical, costly, and painful for patients, so a growing number of studies support serum-based immunoassay testing to monitor drug response, disease progression, and potential for metastases. Such tests are now available for cancer antigen 15-3 (CA 15-3), carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases-1 (TIMP-1), and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2), and can be complimentary to other diagnostics such as imaging or a valuable part of the routine management of disease. For instance, studies suggest that measuring serum HER2 could help oncologists monitor patient response to trastuzumab in the absence of tissue HER2.

Nuking Superbugs

(Nature, 11/4/15, Erika Check Hayden)

Capitalizing on a strategy employed by targeted cancer therapies known as antibody-drug conjugates, scientists in France tethered an antibody against Staphylococcus aureus bacteria to a modified version of the antibiotic rifampin used to treat tuberculosis and tested the combo in mice infected with methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA). They found the experimental treatment was 1,000 times more effective against MRSA than vancomycin, the standard antibiotic now used to treat people with MRSA. While the findings suggest a new way of eliminating subpopulations of bacteria that remain stubbornly resistant and result in numerous hospitalizations and deaths per year, the findings might not be directly translatable to humans. Staph infects different types of immune cells in mice than in humans. And people with chronic Staph may already have antibodies to the bacteria, which could block the effect of the combination therapy.

The Plague’s Genetic Makeover

(Scientific American, 11/4/15, Carrie Arnold)

During the Middle Ages, how did the Black Plague manage to kill one in every three Europeans? It’s a question that fascinates scientists, and it’s not just an academic one. Understanding the history and ancestry of pathogens can help us understand what makes them so virulent and hopefully develop better ways to control, treat or prevent them. In the case of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, a few genetic slip-ups that may have predated humans could have sent the pathogen on a twisted evolutionary pathway and transformed it into one of the most lethal of bugs known today. A biologist at Oregon State University recently found a 20-million-year-old flea encased in amber that has a plague-like bacterium on its proboscis that could be an ancestor of Y. pestis. (This article first appeared in Quanta Magazine.)

—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery