This Week in Research: Mental Illness and Cancer; Saving Old Books

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Johns Hopkins engineers use science to conserve old books with the Heritage Science for Conservation project.

Here’s a puzzle for you:  according to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, people with serious mental illness (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) are more than twice as likely to develop cancer. Why?

“We’re not entirely sure why,” says Gail Daumit, lead researcher on the study and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Hopkins. “Are these people getting screened? Are they being treated? Something’s going on.”

The group of Americans with these serious mental illnesses is small — roughly five percent of the population — but they suffer a much greater risk of premature death than the general population. In part, that’s due to  higher rates of suicide and homicide, but that doesn’t account for the entire gap. According to Daumit’s study of 3,317 Medicaid patients with diagnosed mental illness, patients with schizophrenia were more than 4.5 times more likely to develop lung cancer, 3.5 times more likely to develop colorectal cancer, and almost 3 times as likely to develop breast cancer.

Some of Daumit’s theories? Smoking may account for the high rate of lung cancer among the mentally ill, as it’s more prevalent among that population. Other lifestyle factors (lack of exercise, a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables) may also play a part. It’s also possible that some psychotropic medications may contribute to the increased risk of cancer. According to Daumit, the results may also be a sign that this population isn’t getting appropriate cancer screening and treatment.

Time is hard on old books. Their paper molders, their ink decays, their photographs fade, and their covers come apart. Librarians do their best to keep old tomes in good shape, but now Johns Hopkins is bringing in the big guns — the engineers are getting involved.

The paper decay that plagues old books and documents is a consequence of the chemical and biological properties of paper. Thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, a crew of Johns Hopkins experts in materials science, chemistry, applied physics, engineering, and conservation are teaming up to use science to conserve precious archives in the Heritage Science for Conservation (HSC) project.

For centuries, librarians and conservators have relied on controlling light, temperature, and humidity to slow the inevitable deterioration; what the scientists bring to the table is a more thorough understanding of the raw materials involved.

Some of the problems the HSC is hoping to combat include reversing the effects of mold, creating treatments to strengthen paper, developing non-destructive tests to properly date materials, and (sadly) defining “end of life” for materials in really desperate condition. HSC scientists have already filed for several patents, including a buffer solution that allows a conservator to set the pH level of a paper, and a calibration kit that enables conservators to use spectrometers for paper analysis.

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