Friday, July 21, 2017

Can Home Remedies Help Ease Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment?

How can home remedies help?

Although treatment for breast cancer can help send the disease into remission, it often comes with a number of unpleasant side effects.
Common side effects include:
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • pain
  • menopausal symptoms
  • memory loss
These side effects can differ from person to person, and some may persist even after your treatment ends.
Some people find that home remedies can help relieve their side effects and improve their overall quality of life during and after treatment. They can be used alongside your cancer treatment and are aimed at helping you feel your best.
These remedies are only suggested for treating the side effects of cancer treatment. They aren’t intended to treat the cancer itself.
Keep reading to learn more about potential lifestyle changes and natural remedies that you can use at home to find relief.

Home remedies for fatigue

aerobic exercise
Fatigue is a common side effect of treatment that can affect your daily life. To boost and conserve energy, try sticking to a daily routine and sleep schedule. If you can, limit naps or rest breaks to 30 minutes or less at a time.
This study from 2014 found that women with breast cancer who ate healthily and were physically active lowered their levels of fatigue.
To maintain a balanced diet, you should:
  • Eat or drink at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
  • Be sure you are getting enough calories and protein. Your doctor can provide guidance about your recommended levels.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether you should take a daily multivitamin.
You should also aim to get in 20 minutes or more of physical activity each day. It’s important to stay as active as possible while honoring the limits of your body and energy levels.
You may find it beneficial to incorporate one or more of the following aerobic exercises into your daily routine:
  • walking
  • cycling
  • dancing
  • swimming
Aerobic exercise has a number of benefits, including:
  • increased stamina and endurance
  • improved bodily function
  • better sleep
  • reduced stress
It may also reduce your risk for breast cancer recurrence.
Before exercising, make sure you feel well enough to complete the exercise and do it carefully. Check with your doctor or a fitness expert who specializes in cancer and exercise if you have any concerns.
You shouldn’t exercise without your doctor’s approval if you have:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fertility preservation: Understand your options before cancer treatment

Cancer treatment can have a major impact on fertility. Get the facts about fertility preservation options for both men and women — and know how to choose what's right for you.
By Mayo Clinic Staff
If you're being treated for cancer, you might have questions about fertility preservation. Find out how cancer treatment can affect your ability to have a child, as well as what fertility preservation steps you can take before you begin cancer treatment.

How does cancer treatment affect fertility?

Certain cancer treatments can harm your fertility or cause sterility. The effects might be temporary or permanent. The likelihood that cancer treatment will harm your fertility depends on the type and stage of cancer, cancer treatment, and your age at the time of treatment.
Male fertility can be harmed by the surgical removal of the testicles or by chemotherapy or radiation that damages sperm quantity, quality or DNA.
Female fertility can be compromised by cancer treatments that involve the surgical removal of the uterus or ovaries. Cancer treatment can also affect eggs, hormone levels, or the functioning of the ovaries, uterus or cervix. The risk of developing premature menopause after certain cancer treatments increases as you age. Older women also are more susceptible to permanent ovarian damage.
The effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy also depend on the drug or size and location of the radiation field. The most severe damage is caused when radiation is applied to the ovaries or testicles and by chemotherapy drugs called alkylating agents.

When should I talk to my doctor about fertility preservation?

If you are planning cancer treatment and want to preserve your fertility, talk to your doctor, oncologist or a reproductive specialist as soon as possible. Your fertility can be damaged by one cancer therapy session and, for women, some methods of fertility preservation are typically done during certain phases of the menstrual cycle.

How can women preserve fertility before cancer treatment?

Women who are about to undergo cancer treatment have various options when it comes to fertility preservation. For example:
  • Embryo cryopreservation. In this procedure, eggs are harvested from your ovaries, fertilized through in vitro fertilization (IVF), frozen and stored. Typically at the start of your menstrual cycle, you'll be treated with synthetic hormones to stimulate your ovaries to produce multiple eggs. Mature eggs are removed, combined with sperm — provided by a partner or sperm donor — and frozen. This method has the highest chance of success. Timing ovarian stimulation can delay cancer treatment by two to three weeks, but research suggests that random ovarian stimulation can be successful.
  • Egg freezing (oocyte cryopreservation). Similar to embryo cryopreservation, you'll be treated with synthetic hormones and have your eggs harvested. Then your unfertilized eggs are frozen.
  • Gonadal shielding. If you're having radiation applied to an area far from your pelvis, carefully placed shields can reduce your reproductive organs' exposure to scatter radiation.
  • Ovarian transposition (oophoropexy). During this procedure — recommended if you're having radiation applied to a nonpelvic tumor and no chemotherapy — one or both ovaries are surgically repositioned, so they're protected from the planned radiation field. However, because of scatter radiation, ovaries aren't always protected. After treatment, you might need to have your ovaries repositioned again or use IVF to conceive.
  • Surgical removal of the cervix (radical trachelectomy). If you have early-stage cervical cancer, this procedure can help preserve your uterus.
Other methods of fertility preservation for women still being researched include:
  • Ovarian tissue cryopreservation. During this procedure ovarian tissue is surgically removed, frozen and later reimplanted.
  • Ovarian suppression before cancer therapy. In this treatment, hormonal therapy is used to suppress ovarian function and protect eggs during cancer treatment.

What can men do to preserve fertility before cancer treatment?

Men can also take steps to preserve their fertility before undergoing cancer treatment. For example:
  • Sperm cryopreservation. Before cancer treatment, you'll provide semen samples through masturbation or another method, such as testicular sperm extraction via a needle. Samples are frozen and can be stored for years. Depending on the amount of sperm available, samples might be used with intrauterine insemination, where the sperm is thawed and placed in the uterus, or with in vitro fertilization.
  • Gonadal shielding. Carefully placed shields can reduce your testicles' exposure to radiation.
Another method of fertility preservation for men still being researched is a procedure in which testicular tissue is surgically removed, frozen and later reimplanted (testicular tissue cryopreservation).

Can fertility preservation interfere with successful cancer therapy or increase the risk of recurring cancer?

Research in these areas is limited. There's no evidence that current fertility preservation methods can directly compromise the success of cancer treatments. However, you could compromise the success of your treatment if you delay surgery or chemotherapy to pursue fertility preservation.
There appears to be no increased risk of cancer recurrence associated with most fertility preservation methods. While there is a concern that reimplanting cryopreserved ovarian tissue could reintroduce cancer cells — depending on the type and stage of cancer — no such problems have occurred in humans.

Can cancer treatment increase the risk of health problems in children conceived afterward?

As long as you don't expose your baby to cancer treatments in utero, cancer treatments don't appear to increase the risk of congenital disorders or other health problems for future children.
However, if you receive a cancer treatment that affects the functioning of your heart or lungs or if you receive radiation in your pelvic area, talk to a specialist before becoming pregnant to prepare for possible pregnancy complications.

What can parents do to preserve the fertility of a child who has cancer?

Taking steps to preserve the fertility of a child who has cancer can be difficult because he or she might not understand the consequences of impaired fertility. If your child has begun puberty, options might include oocyte or sperm cryopreservation. Your consent and your child's might be required. However, efforts to preserve the fertility of a child who hasn't begun puberty are considered experimental.

How do I determine the best fertility preservation option for me?

If you want to preserve your fertility before cancer treatment, talk to your doctor, oncologist or a reproductive specialist. Your medical team will consider the type of cancer you have, your treatment plan and the amount of time you have before treatment begins to help determine the best approach for you.
The diagnosis of cancer and the treatment process can be overwhelming. However, if you're concerned about how cancer treatment might affect your fertility, you have options. Don't wait. Getting information about fertility preservation methods before you begin cancer treatment can help you make an informed choice.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Beaumont to fight cancer with Proton Therapy Center

Beaumont Health will unveil today a high-tech cancer-fighting therapy that is considered ideal for destroying cancer cells close to vital organs.
The $40-million Proton Therapy Center in Royal Oak will be one of only 25 such operational centers in the country and the only one in Michigan. The treatment, which targets cancer cells more precisely, is called proton beam therapy.
Although the therapy is touted as a way to boost the quality of life for patients because it can reduce side effects, proton beam therapy is also controversial because of the cost and has been called "the Death Star of American medical technology."
Read more:
Beaumont officials say the "high-tech alternative to X-ray radiation" for cancer patients can lead to fewer side effects and offers hope against formerly incurable cancers.
“This technology will allow us to define future treatment strategies for cancer, “ Dr. Craig Stevens, chairman of Radiation Oncology for Beaumont Health, has said. “We will have the capability to retreat cancer that would have otherwise been considered unsalvageable and incurable.”In Beaumont's 2015 announcement of construction on its 25,200-square-foot Proton Therapy building, Stevens said "proton therapy is ideal for tumors close to vital organs."
Proton beam therapy "uses high-speed protons to fight cancer by aiming a high-energy ionizing beam at the tumor, destroying its cells," according to Beaumont.
Stevens acknowledged that the treatment is not effective against all cancers, but he said in the announcement that "it can be very effective in treating solid and localized tumors, including some pediatric cancers, soft tissue sarcomas, brain tumors and head/neck cancers."
But detractors — including Amitabh Chandra, a professor of social policy and director of health policy research at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, who made the Death Star reference in a 2012 Bloomberg story — have criticized the cost and complexity of the devices.
"Proton-beam therapy is like the Death Star of American medical technology — nothing so big and complicated has ever been confronted by the system. It's a metaphor for all the problems we have in American medicine," Chandra said.
Bret Jackson, president of the Economic Alliance for Michigan, which is a business and labor coalition, disputed the need for such a center in the state.
“We’re concerned that it will be used on patients that won’t receive any additional benefit, and perhaps unnecessarily," Jackson said. "We don’t think proton beam facilities in Michigan are necessary. The scientific studies on the efficacy of proton beam therapy are mixed." 
And cost in the current health care environment is a real concern, Jackson said, suggesting that patients could be left with a substantial bill in the end. 
The 2012 Bloomberg story said costs for proton beam therapy treatments could be about $50,000. An updated figure was not immediately available.
The Arlington, Va.-based American Society for Radiation Oncology released guidelines in 2014 detailing which cancers the group feels should be covered by private insurers and Medicare when the treatment is used. The group noted that the technology is attractive because it reduces the radiation dose to healthy tissues, potentially increasing patients' quality of life.
"To date, scientific evidence exists confirming that PBT is particularly useful in a number of pediatric cancers, particularly those in the brain, as well as for certain adult cancers such as ocular melanoma (a type of eye cancer)," the group said in a news release at the time.
The release, however, also echoed the criticism.
"(Proton beam therapy) has attracted significant attention due to its relative cost, which can be dramatically more than traditional external beam radiation therapy due to the significant expense of building and maintaining proton therapy centers," the release said.
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence. Staff writer JC Reindl contributed to this report.
About proton beam therapy
Proton therapy uses high-speed protons to fight cancer by aiming a high-energy ionizing beam at the tumor, destroying its cells.
A cyclotron, or particle accelerator, creates protons from hydrogen molecules spun at extremely high speeds. They travel up to two-thirds the speed of light.
The proton beam is sent to a treatment room through a transport system consisting of magnets, called the beam line, finally arriving in the gantry. The gantry is a device that rotates around the patient delivering a beam of protons. The beam is directed to the patient through a nozzle that targets the tumor.
Source: Beaumont Health

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What to Do After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Experts explain what newly diagnosed cancer patients need to know to help fight their disease.
Approximately one out of every two American men and one out of every three American women will have some type of cancer at some point during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.
This year almost 1.4 million Americans will hear the words "You've got cancer," and in that instant their lives will be forever transformed.
Bianca Kennedy heard them five years ago, and, like most people, her initial emotion was shock, followed by the question, "Am I going to die?"
Kennedy, now 40, was diagnosed with early breast cancer when her then 38-year-old sister was battling the disease for the third time.
"My sister was grossly undertreated the first two times, and I learned from her experience," Kennedy tells WebMD. "When I was diagnosed I didn't agonize about how aggressively to treat my cancer because I had seen what she what she went through."

What Should You Do?

Kennedy ended up having both breasts removed, followed by chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. She now counsels newly diagnosed patients as a volunteer for Y-ME, a 24-hour support hot line staffed entirely by breast cancer survivors.
She knows firsthand the importance of being an involved, educated patient, but she says most people need time to come to terms with their diagnosis.
"It is common for people who have just been diagnosed to be overwhelmed with all the information they are getting and the choices they are being asked to make," she says. "You are bombarded with facts and figures and statistics, and it is really hard to keep a cool head. But the choices you make are critical and they may impact the rest of your life."
So what are the most important things newly diagnosed patients can do to maximize their odds of beating cancer? WebMD posed this question to doctors, patient advocates, and cancer survivors, and some common themes emerged. They included:

Get the Facts

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that education is critical. That means learning all you can about the specifics of you own cancer and how to best treat it. This is especially important for diseases like breast cancer and lymphoma, where treatments vary greatly.
"I have seen people waste a lot of precious time researching the wrong thing because they didn't really understand their cancer," says Joan Arnim, who manages the patient advocacy program at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "It is often a good idea to ask your doctor for recommendations about where to get information about your particular cancer."

Know Your Information 'Comfort Level'

While some patients go into overdrive learning all they can almost immediately, others either don't feel comfortable doing this or don't want to know too many specifics.
Internet-savvy family members or friends can be called on when patients can't do their own research.
M.D. Anderson gynecological cancer specialist Charles Levenback, MD, tells WebMD that it is important that patients think about just how much information they want before they sit down with their doctors.
"These days the assumption is that the patient wants to know everything, but some may really only want the big picture," he says. "Or they want more information as time goes on. It is important to communicate this."
It is also a good idea to write down questions before meeting with your doctor. The American Cancer Society web site includes a long list of potential questions which can be found in the "Learn about Cancer" section of the site, under the main heading "Patients, Family and Friends." Sample questions, which can be printed and taken along on doctors visits, can also be found on WebMD.

Another Set of Ears

Patients often benefit when they bring someone along to appointments for support and to act as another set of ears, Levenback says. A friend is often better than a close family member in this support role, because family members are often as upset as the patient.
Christina Koenig of Y-ME recommends bringing a tape recorder to doctor's appointments if all agree that this is appropriate.
At the very least, someone should take notes during appointments, Arnim says.
"I've had people tell me that after the first five minutes they didn't hear a thing their doctor was telling them," she says. "That is to be expected"

Don't Be Afraid to Rock the Boat

Arnim says cancer patients are often reluctant to speak up when they are upset about something, out of a conscious or subconscious fear that their doctors or other medical caregivers will abandon them.
"The tendency when someone is feeling vulnerable and scared is to put up with something rather than rock the boat," she says. "But even though your instincts may be telling you to keep quiet, it is important to speak up."
Rocking the boat also means not accepting everything your doctors tells you as gospel. If you feel the need for a second or even third opinion on any aspect of your cancer care, get one.
This advice is equally true for people who suspect they have cancer or some other serious problem, but have been told nothing is wrong, Kennedy says.
"If a doctor is dismissive or hard to communicate with, or tells you nothing is wrong when your gut tells you it is, you need to find another doctor," she says.
Forty-seven-year-old Julie Gomez learned this lesson the hard way. The Houston woman saw a long line of doctors for a painful stomach problem for almost a decade before her rare gastrointestinal cancer was finally diagnosed.
"I was told I had acid reflux or that I ate too fast," she says. "One doctor did all the right tests, and actually saw something on the scan but told me he just didn't believe it. That was eight years before I was finally diagnosed."

Talk to Other Patients

Gomez has had four surgeries to remove gastrointestinal tumors in the 10 years since her cancer was diagnosed, and she may face more in the future if the tumors target her liver or grow big enough to block her intestines.
She now volunteers at a telephone hot line run by M.D. Anderson that matches cancer patients with people who have had the same diagnosis or treatment.
"My cancer is so rare that I didn't meet another person who had it until five years after my diagnosis," she says. "It was very, very lonely."
Gomez now talks to at least one person a week with her disease in her volunteer role, and she believes this is one of the best things patients can do to learn about their illness.
"The Internet is a great learning tool, but it can also scare you to death," she says. "The statistics, especially, can be misleading. They may tell you survival for your disease is less than five years, for example, but if most people with your cancer are diagnosed in the 60s and 70s and you are in your 30s, that may not apply to you."

Tools You Can Use

The M.D. Anderson hot line can be reached by calling (800) 345-6324. All cancer patients or their caregivers are eligible to call. The Y-ME breast cancer support hot line can be reached in English at (800) 221-2141 and in Spanish at (800) 986-9505. Interpreters are also available in 150 other languages.
The American Cancer Society ( and the National Cancer Institute ( both operate comprehensive web sites that include information on cancer treatments and clinical trials, as does WebMD. The information hot line number for ACS is (800) ACS-2345 and the number for NCI is (800) 4-CANCER.
The ACS offers a service to patients and their families that will help match them with clinical trials in their area. To find out about this service call (800) 303-5691 or click on the section entitled Emerging Medical Clinical Trials Matching Service on the ACS web site. You can find out about cancer trials through the NCI at the web site
The ACS web site also offers a service to help patients understand their treatment options, says spokesman David Sampson. To access the service click on "Using Treatment Decision Tools" on the group's home page.
WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

New Hats and Turbans for summer...

New hat and turban summer fashions just arrived. Perfect for sun protection and wearing around the house or on errands. We look forward to seeing you.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

In Search of DNA Connectivity: How Neanderthals Gave Us Secret Powers

How Neanderthals Gave Us Secret Powers

Interbreeding with our fellow hominins appears to have helped humans survive harsh climates.
Native Tibetans make use of a gene derived from Denisovans to stay healthy at high altitudes.Nicolás Marino / Quanta
Early human history was a promiscuous affair. As modern humans began to spread out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, they encountered other species that looked remarkably like them—the Neanderthals and Denisovans, two groups of archaic humans that shared an ancestor with us roughly 600,000 years earlier. This motley mix of humans coexisted in Europe for at least 2,500 years, and we now know that they interbred, leaving a lasting legacy in our DNA. The DNA of non-Africans is made up of roughly 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA, and some Asian and Oceanic island populations have as much as 6 percent Denisovan DNA.
Over the last few years, scientists have dug deeper into the Neanderthal and Denisovan sections of our genomes and come to a surprising conclusion. Certain Neanderthal and Denisovan genes seem to have swept through the modern human population—one variant, for example, is present in 70 percent of Europeans—suggesting that these genes brought great advantage to their bearers and spread rapidly.
“In some spots of our genome, we are more Neanderthal than human,” said Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington. “It seems pretty clear that at least some of the sequences we inherited from archaic hominins were adaptive, that they helped us survive and reproduce.”
But what, exactly, do these fragments of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA do? What survival advantage did they confer on our ancestors? Scientists are starting to pick up hints. Some of these genes are tied to our immune system, to our skin and hair, and perhaps to our metabolism and tolerance for cold weather, all of which might have helped emigrating humans survive in new lands.
“What allowed us to survive came from other species,” said Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not just noise, it’s a very important substantial part of who we are.”
Illustration by Lucy Reading-Ikkanda for Quanta Magazine, based on a map by Sriram Sankararaman.
* * *
The Tibetan plateau is a vast stretch of high-altitude real estate isolated by massive mountain ranges. The scant oxygen at 14,000 feet—roughly 40 percent lower than the concentrations at sea level—makes it a harsh environment. People who move there suffer higher rates of miscarriage, blood clots, and stroke on account of the extra red blood cells their bodies produce to feed oxygen-starved tissue. Native Tibetans, however, manage just fine. Despite the meager air, they don’t make as many red blood cells as the rest of us would at those altitudes, which helps to protect their health.
In 2010, scientists discovered that Tibetans owe their tolerance of low oxygen levels in part to an unusual variant in a gene known as EPAS1. About 90 percent of the Tibetan population and a smattering of Han Chinese (who share a recent ancestor with Tibetans) carry the high-altitude variant. But it’s completely absent from a database of 1,000 human genomes from other populations.
In 2014, Nielsen and colleagues found that Tibetans or their ancestors likely acquired the unusual DNA sequence from Denisovans, a group of early humans first described in 2010 that are more closely related to Neanderthals than to us. The unique gene then flourished in those who lived at high altitudes and faded away in descendants who colonized less harsh environments. “That’s one of the most clear-cut examples of how [interbreeding] can lead to adaptation,” said Sriram Sankararaman, a geneticist and computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The idea that closely related species can benefit from interbreeding, known in evolutionary terms as adaptive introgression, is not a new one. As a species expands into a new territory, it grapples with a whole new set of challenges—different climate, food, predators, and pathogens. Species can adapt through traditional natural selection, in which spontaneous mutations that happen to be helpful gradually spread through the population. But such mutations strike rarely, making it a very slow process. A more expedient option is to mate with species that have already adapted to the region and co-opt some of their helpful DNA. (Species are traditionally defined by their inability to mate with one another, but closely related species often interbreed.)
This phenomenon has been well documented in a number of species, including mice that adopted other species’ tolerance to pesticides and butterflies that appropriated other species’ wing patterning. But it was difficult to study adaptive introgression in humans until the first Neanderthal genome was sequenced in 2010, providing scientists with hominin DNA to compare to our own.
Neanderthals and Denisovans would have been a good source of helpful DNA for our ancestors. They had lived in Europe and Asia for hundreds of thousands of years—enough time to adjust to the cold climate, weak sun and local microbes. “What better way to quickly adapt than to pick up a gene variant from a population that had probably already been there for 300,000 years?” Akey said. Indeed, the Neanderthal and Denisovan genes with the greatest signs of selection in the modern human genome “largely have to do with how humans interact with the environment,” he said.
Illustration by Lucy Reading-Ikkanda for Quanta Magazine, based on a map by Sriram Sankararaman.
To find these adaptive segments, scientists search the genomes of contemporary humans for regions of archaic DNA that are either more common or longer than expected. Over time, useless pieces of Neanderthal DNA—those that don’t help the carrier—are likely to be lost. And long sections of archaic DNA are likely to be split into smaller segments unless there is selective pressure to keep them intact.
In 2014, two groups, one led by Akey and the other by David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, independently published genetic maps that charted where in our genomes Neanderthal DNA is most likely to be found. To Akey’s surprise, both maps found that the most common adaptive Neanderthal-derived genes are those linked to skin and hair growth. One of the most striking examples is a gene called BNC2, which is linked to skin pigmentation and freckling in Europeans. Nearly 70 percent of Europeans carry the Neanderthal version.
Scientists surmise that BNC2 and other skin genes helped modern humans adapt to northern climates, but it’s not clear exactly how. Skin can have many functions, any one of which might have been helpful. “Maybe skin pigmentation, or wound healing, or pathogen defense, or how much water loss you have in an environment, making you more or less susceptible to dehydration,” Akey said. “So many potential things could be driving this—we don’t know what differences were most important.”
* * *
One of the deadliest foes that modern humans had to fight as they ventured into new territories was also the smallest—novel infectious diseases for which they had no immunity. “Pathogens are one of the strongest selective forces out there,” said Janet Kelso, a bioinformatician at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Earlier this year, Kelso and collaborators identified a large stretch of Neanderthal DNA—143,000 DNA base-pairs long—that may have played a key role in helping modern humans fight off disease. The region spans three different genes that are part of the innate immune system, a molecular surveillance system that forms the first line of defense against pathogens. These genes produce proteins called toll-like receptors, which help immune cells detect foreign invaders and trigger the immune system to attack.
Modern humans can have several different versions of this stretch of DNA. But at least three of the variants appear to have come from archaic humans—two from Neanderthals and one from Denisovans. To figure out what those variants do, Kelso’s team scoured public databases housing reams of genomic and health data. They found that people carrying one of the Neanderthal variants are less likely to be infected with H. pylori, a microbe that causes ulcers, but more likely to suffer from common allergies such as hay fever.
Kelso speculates that this variant might have boosted early humans’ resistance to different kinds of bacteria. That would have helped modern humans as they colonized new territories. Yet this added resistance came at a price. “The trade-off for that was a more sensitive immune system that was more sensitive to nonpathogenic allergens,” said Kelso. But she was careful to point out that this is just a theory. “At this point, we can hypothesize a lot, but we don’t know exactly how this is working.”
Most of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genes found in the modern genome are more mysterious. Scientists have only a vague idea of what these genes do, let alone how the Neanderthal or Denisovan version might have helped our ancestors. “It’s important to understand the biology of these genes better, to understand what selective pressures were driving the changes we see in present-day populations,” Akey said.
A number of studies like Kelso’s are now under way, trying to link Neanderthal and Denisovan variants frequently found in contemporary humans with specific traits, such as body-fat distribution, metabolism or other factors. One study of roughly 28,000 people of European descent, published in Science in February, matched archaic gene variants with data from electronic health records. Overall, Neanderthal variants are linked to higher risk of neurological and psychiatric disorders and lower risk of digestive problems. (That study didn’t focus on adaptive DNA, so it’s unclear how the segments of archaic DNA that show signs of selection affect us today.)
At present, much of the data available for such studies is weighted toward medical problems—most of these databases were designed to find genes linked to diseases such as diabetes or schizophrenia. But a few, such as the U.K. Biobank, are much broader, storing information on participants’ vision, cognitive test scores, mental health assessments, lung capacity and fitness. Direct-to-consumer genetics companies also have large, diverse data sets. For example, 23andMe analyzes users’ genetics for clues about ancestry, health risk and other sometimes bizarre traits, such as whether they have a sweet tooth or a unibrow.
Of course, not all the DNA we got from Neanderthals and Denisovans was good. The majority was probably detrimental. Indeed, we tend to have less Neanderthal DNA near genes, suggesting that it was weeded out by natural selection over time. Researchers are very interested in these parts of our genomes where archaic DNA is conspicuously absent. “There are some really big places in the genome with no Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestry as far as we can see—some process is purging the archaic material from these regions,” Sankararaman said. “Perhaps they are functionally important for modern humans.”

This post appears courtesy of Quanta Magazine.