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11/14/2007

Updates on a Vitamin and a Solar System

Last week I promised to look into a new study on vitamin D that
seems to cast doubt on some of the benefits of the vitamin that
we discussed two weeks ago. However, while I was checking
out this work, Brian Trumbore called my attention to another
study from the UK that suggests that vitamin D may help slow
aging. One negative and one positive; I’m sure we’ll hear more
on D in the future. Writing about anything to do with health is
fraught with the possibility a contradictory bit of research will
surface shortly.

I’ll get back to vitamin D shortly but first I have to report on
something truly exciting, to me at least. Three years ago
(9/8/2004), I mentioned the discovery a fourth planet orbiting the
star 55 Cancri, a mere 41 light years away. With four planets
orbiting this star I ventured the comment: “You can bet that this
is one planetary system that will get lots of attention in years to
come.” It has, not only since 2004 but also for the past 18 years
and now the astronomers have announced they’ve found a fifth
planet in 55 Cancri’s solar system.

Yes, it has taken 18 years of continuous observations at the Lick
Observatory in California and at the W. M. Keck Observatory on
Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The five planets around 55 Cancri have
been detected by the “wobble” method in which painstaking
measurements are made of the gravitational tug on the position
of the star as the planets orbit around it. A report on the NASA
Web site dated November 6 implies that one of the reasons it has
taken so long to capture this fifth planet is that it takes 14 years
for one of the other planets to complete one orbit around 55
Cancri. I’m thinking that perhaps the astronomers Debra Fischer
and Geoff Marcy and their collaborators had to follow one
complete orbit to pin down the effect of the newly discovered
planet on the wobble.

Obviously, the position of the star at any moment is determined
by the positions of the five planets as they all orbit the star, each
planet pushing or pulling depending on its alignment with the
other planets at that moment. To me it’s astounding that
astronomers can measure a star’s position so precisely that they
can eventually figure out that there have to be five planets to
account for the data. And this for a star that’s over 200 trillion
miles away from Earth.

If you wonder why all the excitement, hey, they’ve found a star
with at least five planets. We only have 8 in our solar system
now that Pluto has been demoted. Furthermore, this new planet
happens to be in the “habitable” zone around 55 Cancri. It orbits
the star in 260 days, not much different from our year of 365
days. It’s about 20 million miles closer to the star, but 55 Cancri
is not as bright as our Sun. Being in the habitable zone of course
brings up the possibility of life. The downside is that the planet is
around 45 times larger than Earth and probably is more like
Saturn in its makeup.

Though the planet itself is unlikely to harbor life, what about any
moons? Moons would seem to be likely based on the fact that
our own massive planets have large moons such as Europa and
Titan. Moons in the habitable zone around our new planet
orbiting 55 Cancri might have pools of water and a rocky
surface. Life? I don’t expect to live long enough to read of
moons being detected around any planet in a distant solar system,
but I feel comfortable about predicting again that we haven’t
heard the last of 55 Cancri and its companions.

Well, back down to our own sun and vitamin D. First, the
possible bad news. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute
analyzed the blood levels of vitamin D in some 17,000 subjects
in a decade-long study following their health. After ten years,
there was no apparent effect of vitamin D on the chances of
dying from cancer, with one exception. For colorectal cancer,
high levels of vitamin D correlated with a 72% reduced chance
of dying from that disease. It’s not all negative news.

The study, to my knowledge, didn’t seem to invalidate the
observations of reduced cancer risk related to latitude of the
country of residence mentioned in my earlier column. There’s
one big caveat about this new study, however. The vitamin D
levels were measured at only one particular time in the lives of
the participants in the study. This is admittedly a big problem
that could skew the results, especially if the vitamin D levels
change significantly with the seasons and exposure to sunlight.
There’s more work to be done.

The more positive note is struck in a BBC article dated
November 8 and headlined “Vitamin D ‘may help slow ageing’”
that describes a King’s College London study of over 2,000
women of ages between 18 and 79. What they found was that,
adjusting for the age of the participant, the women who had the
highest levels of vitamin D had the longest telomeres in the DNA
of their white blood cells.

We haven’t discussed telomeres in some time. Telomeres are
sections of DNA that cap the ends of DNA strands. Telomeres
generally get shorter as cells reproduce and are considered a
marker of the age or imminent death of cells. White blood cells
tend to divide/reproduce more rapidly if the body is suffering
from inflammation. Thus the telomeres in white blood cells will
get shorter more rapidly if inflammation is present. The King’s
College study suggests that the vitamin D being associated with
the longer telomeres is a sign that the aging process is slowed
down by the vitamin in the blood. As with the other vitamin D
study, however, there are caveats and there’s the possibility that
some other factor is responsible for the longer telomeres.

OK, so much for the health front. Again, I’m sure there will be
more research following up on the telomere shortening. I must
admit that I feel it’s more likely that astronomers will find a sixth
planet around 55 Cancri before we truly understand the role of
vitamin D.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-11/14/2007-      
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Dr. Bortrum

11/14/2007

Updates on a Vitamin and a Solar System

Last week I promised to look into a new study on vitamin D that
seems to cast doubt on some of the benefits of the vitamin that
we discussed two weeks ago. However, while I was checking
out this work, Brian Trumbore called my attention to another
study from the UK that suggests that vitamin D may help slow
aging. One negative and one positive; I’m sure we’ll hear more
on D in the future. Writing about anything to do with health is
fraught with the possibility a contradictory bit of research will
surface shortly.

I’ll get back to vitamin D shortly but first I have to report on
something truly exciting, to me at least. Three years ago
(9/8/2004), I mentioned the discovery a fourth planet orbiting the
star 55 Cancri, a mere 41 light years away. With four planets
orbiting this star I ventured the comment: “You can bet that this
is one planetary system that will get lots of attention in years to
come.” It has, not only since 2004 but also for the past 18 years
and now the astronomers have announced they’ve found a fifth
planet in 55 Cancri’s solar system.

Yes, it has taken 18 years of continuous observations at the Lick
Observatory in California and at the W. M. Keck Observatory on
Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The five planets around 55 Cancri have
been detected by the “wobble” method in which painstaking
measurements are made of the gravitational tug on the position
of the star as the planets orbit around it. A report on the NASA
Web site dated November 6 implies that one of the reasons it has
taken so long to capture this fifth planet is that it takes 14 years
for one of the other planets to complete one orbit around 55
Cancri. I’m thinking that perhaps the astronomers Debra Fischer
and Geoff Marcy and their collaborators had to follow one
complete orbit to pin down the effect of the newly discovered
planet on the wobble.

Obviously, the position of the star at any moment is determined
by the positions of the five planets as they all orbit the star, each
planet pushing or pulling depending on its alignment with the
other planets at that moment. To me it’s astounding that
astronomers can measure a star’s position so precisely that they
can eventually figure out that there have to be five planets to
account for the data. And this for a star that’s over 200 trillion
miles away from Earth.

If you wonder why all the excitement, hey, they’ve found a star
with at least five planets. We only have 8 in our solar system
now that Pluto has been demoted. Furthermore, this new planet
happens to be in the “habitable” zone around 55 Cancri. It orbits
the star in 260 days, not much different from our year of 365
days. It’s about 20 million miles closer to the star, but 55 Cancri
is not as bright as our Sun. Being in the habitable zone of course
brings up the possibility of life. The downside is that the planet is
around 45 times larger than Earth and probably is more like
Saturn in its makeup.

Though the planet itself is unlikely to harbor life, what about any
moons? Moons would seem to be likely based on the fact that
our own massive planets have large moons such as Europa and
Titan. Moons in the habitable zone around our new planet
orbiting 55 Cancri might have pools of water and a rocky
surface. Life? I don’t expect to live long enough to read of
moons being detected around any planet in a distant solar system,
but I feel comfortable about predicting again that we haven’t
heard the last of 55 Cancri and its companions.

Well, back down to our own sun and vitamin D. First, the
possible bad news. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute
analyzed the blood levels of vitamin D in some 17,000 subjects
in a decade-long study following their health. After ten years,
there was no apparent effect of vitamin D on the chances of
dying from cancer, with one exception. For colorectal cancer,
high levels of vitamin D correlated with a 72% reduced chance
of dying from that disease. It’s not all negative news.

The study, to my knowledge, didn’t seem to invalidate the
observations of reduced cancer risk related to latitude of the
country of residence mentioned in my earlier column. There’s
one big caveat about this new study, however. The vitamin D
levels were measured at only one particular time in the lives of
the participants in the study. This is admittedly a big problem
that could skew the results, especially if the vitamin D levels
change significantly with the seasons and exposure to sunlight.
There’s more work to be done.

The more positive note is struck in a BBC article dated
November 8 and headlined “Vitamin D ‘may help slow ageing’”
that describes a King’s College London study of over 2,000
women of ages between 18 and 79. What they found was that,
adjusting for the age of the participant, the women who had the
highest levels of vitamin D had the longest telomeres in the DNA
of their white blood cells.

We haven’t discussed telomeres in some time. Telomeres are
sections of DNA that cap the ends of DNA strands. Telomeres
generally get shorter as cells reproduce and are considered a
marker of the age or imminent death of cells. White blood cells
tend to divide/reproduce more rapidly if the body is suffering
from inflammation. Thus the telomeres in white blood cells will
get shorter more rapidly if inflammation is present. The King’s
College study suggests that the vitamin D being associated with
the longer telomeres is a sign that the aging process is slowed
down by the vitamin in the blood. As with the other vitamin D
study, however, there are caveats and there’s the possibility that
some other factor is responsible for the longer telomeres.

OK, so much for the health front. Again, I’m sure there will be
more research following up on the telomere shortening. I must
admit that I feel it’s more likely that astronomers will find a sixth
planet around 55 Cancri before we truly understand the role of
vitamin D.

Allen F. Bortrum