Villagers armed with smartphones can help stem the rising rate of suicides in India

The stigma attached to mental illnesses is hurting India. Few are brave to speak about it to someone and fewer still get treated. The result is that, for every 100,000 Indians between 15 and 29 years old, 36 commit suicide annually—the highest rate among the youth in the world.

Worse still, according to Vikram Patel, professor of mental health at the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015, without urgent improvement in treating mental disorders, suicides will soon become the leading cause of death among the young.

Read more on Quartz. Also published in Lokmat Times.

Image credit: cgiarclimate under CC-BY-NC-SA license.

Curious Bends  – healthy obesity, astrology as a science, energy subsidies and more

1. India’s poor risk their health to mine electronic waste

The UN estimated in 2012 that, for the first time, developing countries were producing more electronic waste than developed ones. In the same year, India imposed some regulations about how it is handled. Electronic waste, often comprising consumer electronics such as smartphones and laptops, contains valuable metals such as copper and gold as well as disease-causing substances like flame retardants and carcinogenic heavy metals. But India’s rules have fallen flat. Photographs of rural women and children processing the stuff are proof. (3 min read)

2. Civilian drones in Indian skies are winging it

For the price of a smartphone, you can get yourself a drone in the bigger markets of India’s metros, or online, and use it to deliver pizzas. On the other hand, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation seems inappropriately slow to catch up: “We are looking at regulations being developed in other countries for reference.” It seems India will continue its experiments with technologies markedly susceptible to abuse. (5 min read)

3. Can you be healthily obese?

Scientists have identified a protein that seems to mark a controversial distinction between healthy and unhealthy obese people. In a study, they found that obese people who had twice-as-high levels of heme oxygenase-1 displayed insulin resistance, the precursor of type-2 diabetes. However, even if the notion of “healthy” obesity prevails, that the healthily obese will be at a slight disadvantage compared to healthy, lean people won’t change. (4 min read)

+ The author, Priyanka Pulla, is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist and Takshashila Institute scholar.

4. Some people think astrology is a science

It is no secret that India’s belief in astrology is too high for its own good. Based on past studies and his own work, a sociologist argues that the reason so many people believe that astrology is a science is because they also believe in “conformity and deference to higher authority of some kind”. Together with the thesis that people high on authoritarianism tend to pay blind allegiance to conventional beliefs, he finds that people who value obedience as a virtue are likelier to think astrology is scientific. (6 min read).

5. A dramatic decline in suicides in China thanks to urbanisation

Despite suggestions that Chinese authorities underreport numbers, the country’s rapidly ageing society has seen a rapid decline in the number of suicides among young rural women: a 90% drop in little more than a decade. Experts say it’s because of migration and the rise of an urban middle class. “Moving to the cities to work … has been the salvation of many rural young women, liberating them from parental pressures, bad marriages, overbearing mothers-in-law and other stresses of poor, rural life.” This is the exact opposite of what urbanisation has done to suicide numbers in the West. (5 min read)

Chart of the week

One of the factors that hampers Asia’s energy security is subsidies on the primary energy products—electricity, petroleum products, coal and natural gas. The chart below shows 15 Asian countries and the amount of post-tax subsidies on these products they spend as a percentage of their GDP. Almost all of them predominantly spend on petroleum products. The more developed among them—Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea—don’t subsidise electricity. India and China are heavy on coal. Click here for an interactive version with access to the data.

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For more, follow curators Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. Feel free to send in feedback at Enjoy the weekend!

Cancer drugs: Refusing to die

Suicide is a part of life. Whenever any of the 100 trillion or so cells that make up the human body malfunction, which happens all the time even in healthy tissue, they are programmed to provoke their own death. The mechanism hinges on a protein called TRAIL, which is produced by the damaged cell and binds to receptors on its surface, causing inflammation. That is a signal for the immune system to sweep in and, through a process called apoptosis, break down the damaged cell and recycle its parts to feed healthy ones. If this self-destruct is subverted, however, the result is a tumour.

When TRAIL’s tumour-suppressing ability was first discovered in 1995 researchers hoped that by discriminating between cancer cells and healthy ones, TRAIL would do away with the debilitating side-effects associated with traditional treatments like radio- and chemotherapy. These are good at destroying tumours but also cause lots of collateral damage. Unfortunately, it turned out that simply injecting a synthetic version of the molecule into the patient’s body provoked only a limited immune response in a handful of cancers.

That, says Joshua Allen from the Pennsylvania State Cancer Institute, was because people assumed that cancer’s subversion of TRAIL consisted merely in halting the molecule’s production within the cell. It turns out, however, that cancerous cells also suppress their TRAIL receptors, so no amount of synthetic TRAIL sloshing about would ever be enough. What you need, Dr Allen reasoned, is something to reboot the TRAIL-producing pathway within cells as well as to unblock their TRAIL receptors. Only then would the immune system be spurred into action.

So he and his colleagues sifted through a library of molecules maintained by America’s National Cancer Institute and found a molecule, called TIC10, whose biochemistry seemed to fit the bill. When enough of these molecules accumulate in a cancer cell, they activate a protein called FOXO3a. This binds to DNA and flips on many biological pathways, including those involved in the TRAIL mechanism that lead to the immune-system alerting inflammation.

As Dr Allen and his colleagues report in Science Translational Medicine, tests in mice with brain tumours confirmed the biochemical hunch. Murine subject given TIC10 lived twice as long as those that received no treatment. The drug also worked for lymphoma, as well as breast, colon and lung cancers. And it did not seem to cause the wasting side-effects typically associated with chemotherapy, suggesting that it can indeed tell cancer cells from healthy ones. As an added bonus, TIC10 is small compared to TRAIL, and cheaper to concoct than the complex protein is.

Last year Dr Allen secured a $1.3m grant from Pennsylvania’s department of health to begin clinical trials. These will be carried out in collaboration with Oncoceutics, a drug company. Nine out of ten promising molecules which work in mice fail in humans, so “Cure for cancer” headlines must wait. If TIC10 does live up to its promise, though, it would make one killer app.

First published on

Image from here