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Science, Medicine, Technology
  Former U.S. Army Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith, who was denied GI Bill benefits because he attempted suicide, listens to fellow members of Iraq Veterans Against the War testify before Congress in 2008.
Casualties of war?

Suicides among U.S. Army personnel today are at their highest levels since the military began keeping records three decades ago. Last year, 139 members of the Army killed themselves, up from 115 in 2007; the U.S. government expects that even more soldiers will take their own lives this year. In January alone, 24 Army troops killed themselves, while 16 died in combat.

The Army has decided that it needs outside help, so it is funding a $50 million study to determine what pushes soldiers to commit suicide. Columbia doctors are coleading the five-year study, which is the largest ever on military suicide, along with researchers at Harvard, the University of Michigan, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. The project is overseen by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Columbia’s research team is led by John Mann, who is an expert on suicide triggers. He is vice chair for research and chief of the division of molecular imaging and neuropathology at Columbia University Medical Center.

“This study will add to an extensive body of research on suicide,” says Mann, “and help us better understand the unique factors contributing to suicide’s increasing prevalence among our servicemen and -women.”

Researchers will interview every new recruit coming into the U.S. Army, including the National Guard and Reserves, over the next three years and examine the files of soldiers who have committed suicide in the past. They will consider factors such as the soldiers’ length of deployment, whether they experienced post-traumatic stress, relationship and economic struggles, childhood abuse, and family history of depression.

The researchers will release preliminary findings to the Army every three months, beginning in November, in order to shape ongoing programs that aim to reduce stress among soldiers and to provide them counseling.

“In the past, our training programs were ones of avoidance; we tried to avoid [problems],” General Peter Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, told Voice of America radio on July 22. “That has changed today. The goal is to assess, educate, train, and intervene early in an effort to identify and mitigate issues before they can become significant concerns.”  


Ovarian cancer cells such as these often spread throughout a woman’s abdomen because ovarian cancer does not normally produce symptoms until it has reached an advanced stage.
Fertility hope for ovarian cancer patients

Women with ovarian cancer commonly are told by doctors that they face a terrible choice: have their ovaries and their uterus removed or face an increased risk of the cancer returning.

New research by Columbia scientists suggests that this might be unnecessary for women in the early stages of the disease. A study of more than 4000 women, age 50 and under, with stage 1 cancer confined to a single ovary, found that women who had only their cancerous ovary removed and kept their uterus had a five-year survival rate similar to women who had both ovaries removed and underwent a hysterectomy.

“This represents the largest study of ovary- and uterine-conserving surgery for early-stage ovarian cancer,” says lead author Jason Wright, the Levine Family Assistant Professor of Women’s Health at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The study analyzed data from women diagnosed with ovarian cancer between 1988 and 2004. In one analysis, researchers studied 1286 patients with ovarian cancer and found that 64 percent of the patients had both of their ovaries removed. A second analysis of 2911 patients focused specifically on uterine preservation, finding that 77 percent had a hysterectomy.

The fact that these aggressive surgeries did not improve five-year survival rates suggests that “for young women with early-stage ovarian cancer, fertility-conserving surgery may be a reasonable alternative,” says Wright. “It is important for women to discuss the risks and benefits of fertility-preserving procedures with their physicians.”

The removal of both ovaries and the uterus, in addition to making women infertile, can cause health complications related to estrogen deprivation, the researchers point out.

Other Columbia authors included Monji Shah, William M. Burke, Peter B. Schiff, and Thomas J. Herzog. The study appeared in the September 15, 2009, issue of the journal Cancer.

  Bärbel Hönisch used this mass spectrometer to measure boron isotopes and reconstruct past carbon dioxide levels.
CO2 shell game

Columbia geochemists have estimated past carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere in the sharpest detail ever by analyzing the shells of single-celled plankton buried under the Atlantic Ocean.

The researchers show that peak CO2 levels over the last 2.1 million years averaged only 280 parts per million, whereas today CO2 is at 385 parts per million, or, 38 percent above average. The study, which appeared in the June 19 issue of the journal Science, was led by Bärbel Hönisch, a geochemist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Hönisch and her colleagues reconstructed CO2 levels by dating plankton shells off the coast of Africa and measuring their boron isotopes. The idea to approximate past carbon dioxide levels using boron, an element released by erupting volcanoes and used in household soap, was pioneered over the last decade by the paper’s coauthor, Gary Hemming, a researcher at Lamont-Doherty. The scientists were able to estimate how much CO2 was in the air when the plankton were alive because the chemical composition of the dead sea creatures serves as a proxy for seawater pH, which is linked to atmospheric gas. This method allowed them to see further back in history than have previous analyses of polar ice cores, which date back only 800,000 years.

Interestingly, the Science paper is the latest to rule out the possibility that a series of long and intense ice ages that began about 850,000 years ago can be explained by drops in atmospheric carbon dioxide. “Previous studies indicated that CO2 did not change much over the past 20 million years,” says Hönisch, “but the resolution wasn’t high enough to be definitive. This new study tells us that CO2 was not the main trigger.”

A second theory to explain the changes that occurred 850,000 years ago in the Earth’s climate cycles suggests that glaciers in North America stripped away soil in Canada, causing thicker, longer-lasting ice to build up on bedrock. A third theory argues that scientists have miscalculated the lengths of ice ages and that they did not actually get any longer or intensify.

Nevertheless, Hönisch and other scientists say that the low CO2 levels that she  and her research team outlined over the past 2.1 million years reveal modern-day CO2 levels as even more anomalous, and thus dangerous.

“We know from looking at much older climate records that large and rapid increase in CO2 about 55 million years ago caused large extinction in bottom-dwelling ocean creatures, and dissolved a lot of shells as the ocean became acidic,” says Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the research. “We’re heading in that direction now.”


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