Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, September 30, 2019

Why? Your Gut Microbiome!

"We had this concern that it would be difficult to recruit people[for an endocrinological study] because there's a certain yucki factor with having to take a poop pill."
"But we had an overwhelming number of volunteers [respond to an invitation to take part in the study]."
"It would be great if there was a treatment that could come out of this research [Canadian study in fecal transplants]."
"But I don't think we're going to find some magic portion that will be able to cure obesity in the absence of any other intervention."
Dr. Elaine Yu, endocrinologist, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
Credit: S. Bradbrook / Springer Nature Limited

Dr.Yu evidently -- as anyone might -- underestimated the public's interest in why it is that some people tend to a lean conformation while others become obese. Popularly, people nod wisely and speak of the functioning high metabolism some are gifted with, enabling them to eat what they wish without gaining excess weight. So when she advertised for volunteers and was inundated with responses several years ago by members of the public eager to take part in her experimental study she was surprised.

There have been recently revealed clues that microbiota, the trillions of microbes that inhabit the gut, play a role in weight gain and metabolic disease. Scientists now explore whether changes in metabolism and body weight can be manipulated with the aid of fecal microbiota transplants (F.M.T.), where gut bacteria from lean donors are transferred to the guts of obese patients. And while the process shows some promise, research thus far has concluded with mixed results.

There are those experts who feel that irrespective of what biological interventions can be contrived  such as fecal transplants, the much simpler to advise, but difficult to convince patients of the need to alter lifestyle by changing diet and activity level to purposefully see positive weight and health impacts will always be superior in functionality and outcome. Those two issues; diet and exercise, can work wonders to prevent obesity and Type 2 (formerly adult-onset) diabetes.

On the other hand, some scientists subscribe to the belief that it is possible to discover bacteria whose purpose is to protect against metabolic disease. That the microbiomes of obese and lean people differ has been known by scientists for some time. Less microbial diversity is recognized as leading to obesity, insulin resistance and fatty liver disease. When obese mice have their microbiota transplanted into lean mice the formerly lean mice gain weight.

A bacterial infection, Clostridium difficile, was proven to be effectively treated with fecal transplants to deal with the bacterial infection occurring when antibiotics destroy healthy gut bacteria. There is one telling case of a lean woman receiving an F.M.T. from her overweight daughter to treat C. diff, and she swiftly gained 15 kilograms. Although intuition linked the daughter's F.M.T. to the mother's weight gain, her doctors would not commit to crediting it with that effect.

In 2012, researchers in the Netherlands demonstrated that transferring a lean donor's microbiota to obese men with metabolic syndrome succeeded in increases in insulin sensitivity and microbial diversity following six weeks of treatment. In Dr. Yu's study, the 24 obese individuals with insulin resistance whom she recruited were divided into two teams, half of whom took capsules of stool from lean donors weekly, while the other half received a placebo.

Subjects receiving the F.M.T. after 12 weeks had microbiota resembling that of the donors, but no improvement was seen in metabolic health. In the Canadian study, the effects of fecal transplants on people with fatty liver disease was examined with the authors concluding that the treatment led to changes in the guts of the recipients, producing the effect of a less "leaky" gut membrane.

Researchers have discovered the immune system can directly alter populations of certain bacteria in the gut that affect how dietary fats are absorbed

There is a hypothesis to explain how an abnormal microbiome could contribute to metabolic disease and weight gain through damaging the gut barrier keeping toxins and pathogens from crossing into the bloodstream. Once those toxins and pathogens enter the bloodstream, they are able to set off inflammation contributing to insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune conditions, according to the lead author of the study, Dr.Michael Silverman.

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Restoring Bald Heads to Luxurious Manes

"It [baldness] has a massive psychological effect. Some of the guys in my unit were fine with it, they would just shave their heads. But I flt very self-conscious. It has that emotional effect. People like me, we will do anything [to try to recover head hair]."
"The procedure to harvest the follicle sample will cost around $3,500. Then it is around $175 per year to preserve it. After that it will be about $10,000 every three to five years to culture and replace the cells. It is a gamble because it is experimental, but if the theory matches the experimental results, it will be a complete game-changer."
"There is a lot of smoke and mirrors out there. People get exploited. But I started losing my hair aged 25. Now I'm 39. And I know now that it is a mental health thing. It's linked to that."
Mike Marsh, retired military, British Armed Forces
A hair specialist checking a patient
Around half of men suffer from male pattern hair loss  : OZAN KOSE/AFP

"Hair is far, far more complicated than it appears. Every week, someone publishes another research paper that describes a compound or chemical that is supposed to play a role in hair growth and loss."
"We're not close to growing hair from scratch. We don't have the full answer about the interaction between hormones and enzymes and proteins to create hair, and even if we do, mechanically it can be hard to deposit in the tiny space and keep it there. We're years away."
"It's like nature has a protection to stop us from curing baldness."
Dr. Bessam Farjo, medical director, HairClone

Based in Manchester, England, the biotechnology firm Hair Clone has been given approval by the Human Tissue Authority to store follicular units (FU), used to clone dermal papilla cells (DPCs) abundant in the roots of healthy, thick hair. This experimental treatment will see clones made into a solution to be injected into the scalp to repopulate roots of thinning hair follicles for their clients. They are awaiting approval from another government agency, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

If it works -- since this is purely experimental, with no guarantee it may succeed -- Dr. Farjo confirms that the process will need to be repeated every few years to replenish the DPCs. Mr. Marsh, so devastated by the loss of his hair, is willing to bet onthe success of the method, claiming he is prepared to do anything to ensure he can restore  his lost hair. It is an extremely costly venture, one born of vanity. And it is not just men who are involved, but women as well.

This is an industry whose value has been estimated to be around $4-billion globally. Estimates from the International Society of Hair Restoration are that over 600,000 surgical hair restoration procedures were undertaken world wide in 2016, triple that of ten years earlier. According to the British Association of Dermatologists, roughly half of men aged 50 suffer from male pattern hair loss (known as well as androgenetic alopecia). Female pattern hair loss and associated conditions related to a group of hormones known as androgens afflict 40 percent of women with a degree of visible hair loss, at a like age.

Unfortunately, by any measure, no cure for age-related baldness has yet been devised. Treatments include "licensed topical and oral treatments", where reliance on special shampoos to restore hair holds the fantasy of hope for some people. Even those treatments can be expensive. "Decreased libido and erectile problems are recognized side effects of this treatment", notes the British Association of Dermatologists. Additional options such as wigs and 'skin camouflage' also exist. "These preparations may wash away if the hair gets wet in rain", is the downside of the skin camouflage.

The hair replacement industry has remained in the same hopeless groove for the last 70 years, since surgical transplants were offered in the United States in the 50s. Back then, surgeons used borers of four to five millimetre in size to extract follicular units from back and side of the head for re-implantation on top. Tiny discs of hair would not be placed too close, to allow skin to heal, so what resulted was a colander effect, none too attractive.  "Aeshtetically, it didn't look good", Dr. Farjo stated.
And then in recent times, surgeons attempted something different; removal of strips of scalp to enable the harvesting of follicular units. There is on average 100,000 such units on the average human scalp; this procedure at most could transplant 4,000 units and not leave livid scars. The results were somewhat less than satisfactory, even undergoing several such operations. And in came follicle freezing, the latest in a long, unsuccessful campaign to regrow or restore hair follicles.

At the turn of the year, researcher Dr. Angela Christiano, professor of genetics and dermatology, Columbia University, used 3D printed follicle moulds to implant in mice in which human hair began to sprout. She foresees hair farms where cloned DPCs 'seed' thousands of 3D-printed moulds followed by the follicles thus created being implanted into the scalp. "Use of this new technology by hair researchers, hair restoration surgeons and the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries will have overwhelming implications in the maintenance and regeneration of this complex human tissue."

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

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Saturday, September 28, 2019

Not In My Tea!

"I was not surprised to see there was plastic coming out. I was surprised to see such a high concentration."
"It would be a responsible consumer action ... to stop purchasing this ['silken' tea bag products], not only because of the plastic that it's releasing, but because of the single-use plastic."
"The consumer should avoid plastic packaging, not a specific brand, and definitely not the tea that comes inside. We encourage consumers to choose loose teas ... sold without packaging or other teas that come in paper teabags."
"There is really no need to package tea in plastic, which at the end of the day becomes single-use plastic. [And] which is contributing to you not just ingesting plastic but to the environmental burden of plastic.
Laura Hernandez, Researcher, graduate student, McGill University, Montreal
Getty Images

New research out of Canada indicates high quantities of microplastics are likely to be present in a cup of tea if that tea was produced with the use of a premium product; tea leaves presented in 'silken' tea bags. Those bags are made of food-grade plastic. They may look good and the tea would needless to say taste very good, but the hidden menace is the burden of microplastics.

Ordinary tea bags made of paper are quite different from the 'silken' tea bags made of plastic. Visually they are pyramid-shaped on the theory that the shape allows the tea leaves within, additional expansion room. Once used for the purpose they're meant for -- to produce a cup of tea -- the bag is discarded just as is the paper type. The difference is that the Researchers discovered that 11.6 billion microplastic particles and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles are released into the tea produced with the plastic-type tea bags.
"I said, 'Oh God, I'm sure if it's plastic it's, like, breaking down into the tea.'"
"We were shocked when we saw billions of particles in a single cup of tea,"
"There's really no research [with respect to this issue]. But this really points to the need to do those studies. Think of people who drink one or two or three cups of tea a day, every day."
Nathalie Tufenkji, professor of chemical engineering, McGill University
Why the research on tea bags? Professor Tufenkji, it appears, ordered tea while at a coffee shop, then regarded the resulting liquid with astonishment. She was convinced she was seeing tiny bits of plastic floating about in the tea. That inspired her to think of this research. On return to her laboratory she spoke to her graduate student, instructing her to purchase various brands of tea in the plastic tea bags. Resulting lab tests revealed the presence of plastic particles, once the tea bags were steeped in boiling water.

On the evidence of Professor Tufenkji's brief experience, the two fully expected to see microplastic and smaller nanoplastic particles appear. They just weren't prepared for the huge numbers involved. The sheer number of contaminants from the tea bag seemed far in excess of such particles reported previously in other foods. Table salt has a fairly high concentration of microplastics, at 0.005 microplasgrams per gram of salt. In comparison, a cup of tea holds between 13 and 16 micrograms of microplastics, reflecting results for the four different tea bag brands the study tested.

Many fancier teas now come in 'silken' bags instead of paper, and some of them are pyramid-shaped, which is billed as a way to make room for the large leaves in premium teas to expand. (Shutterstock / slawomir.gawryluk)

The study was published last week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. According to the World Health Organization, little evidence exists to suggest that the presence of microplastics in drinking water represents a harm to human health. Further study is required before any alarm is raised.  Differing dosages of nanoplastics and microplastics were used when the researchers at McGill "treated water fleas" and identified anatomical and behavioural abnormalities in the bugs which nonetheless did not die.

When the McGill team brought the different brands of plastic tea bags to their lab, they removed the tea leaves before testing, to ensure that the presence of the tea leaves would not interfere in their testing for plastic leaching from the bags. Rinsing the tea bags, they heated the water to simulate the brewing of tea, following which a process called electron microscopy measured the presence of minuscule plastics in the heated water.

To gain some perspective on size of the plastic, microplastic particles are equal to the diameter of a human hair, while a nanoplastic is roughly one thousand times more minuscule than that measurement. No evidence yet exists linking plastic particles ingested to health problems, mentioned both researchers, but consumers, they cautioned, would be well advised to exercise normal vigilance and avoid single-use plastic teabags.

In a preliminary experiment, water fleas exposed to the microplastics from the tea bags 'ballooned' and showed behavioural changes that suggested they were stressed. ((Paul D.N. Hebert, University of Guelph))

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Friday, September 27, 2019

Food for Thought

"I think people shouldn't just embark on a vegan diet because it's on trend, and they're following some Instagram guru."
"They should delve deeper and understand that there are nutrient shortfalls."
"Full-blown B12 deficiency is not very common in today's society. [Deriving enough vitamin D the 'sunshine vitamin' from diet is of greater concern , vital for the health of bones, teeth and immune system]."
"Vitamin D-rich foods are mainly oily fish, eggs and things like that [difficult to attain on a vegetarian and vegan diet]."
Helen Bond, dietitian, consultant, spokesperson, British Dietetic Association
Vegan and vegetarian diets could affect your chances of a heart attack, the study suggests (Photo: Getty)
Vegan and vegetarian diets could affect your chances of a heart attack (Photo: Getty)

"We observed lower rates of ischaemic heart disease in fish eaters and vegetarians than in meat eaters, which appears to be at least partly due to lower body mass index and lower rates of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes associated with these diets."
Oxford University researchers

“It is based on results from just one study and the increase is modest relative to meat eaters,”'
“Relevance to vegetarians worldwide must also be considered. Participants were all from the UK where dietary patterns and other lifestyle behaviours are likely very different from those prevalent in low and middle-income countries where most of the world’s vegetarians live.”
Professor Mark Lawrence, Public Health Nutrition, Deakin University, Australia

"It does seem that the lower risk of coronary heart diseases does exceed the higher risk of stroke, if we look at the absolute numbers."
"There is some evidence which suggests that very low cholesterol levels might be associated with a slightly higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke."
"[Similarly, other research points to deficiencies of some nutrients, like vitamin B12, may be linked to a higher risk of stroke]."
Tammy Tong, Study lead researcher, nutritional epidemiologist, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford
A major study published last week in the British Medical Journal by researchers from Oxford University concludes there is a 20 percent higher risk of stroke among vegetarians and vegans as compared with people those diets include red meat; for that matter any kind of meat. It is the authors' educated guess that this might occur as a result of vegetarians lacking sufficient blood cholesterol. Close to 50,000 Britons were tracked for this study for a period of 18 years.

Conventional wisdom claims vegetarianism represents a healthier alternative to a carnivorous diet, quite the opposite of what this research concludes, in part. Yet, according to nutritionists, an increased risk of stroke represents merely one of the many health risks to complicate the health of vegetarians and people should be aware before they decide to opt for the kind of diet that depends solely on vegetables to the exclusion of meat entirely.

Dietitian Helen Bond feels the results of the Oxford study should be viewed with serious concern. Although the 20 percent accelerated risk in practical terms is "quite small", sample size taken into account (equating to three additional cases of stroke per 1,000 people over ten years), those whose diets avoid meat entirely fail to understand the entire implications of their choice on their health outcomes.

Nutritionist Emma Derbyshire wrote recently in the British Medical Journal that vegans face the potential of deficiency in choline, a nutrient critical for brain health, and one found commonly in eggs, milk and beef. Choline influences memory, mood and muscle control. Although vegans could conceivably reach requisite levels of choline from alternate sources, it is not fully understood by most vegans to impel them to take the necessaryremedial action.

As for B12, also critical to brain health, it is sourced only through the inclusion of animal products in the balanced diet. Lacking this critical vitamin, a greater risk of being fatigued is foreseen, along with a weakening of the immune system.

Food for thought, at the very least.

The research found a 20 per cent increase [Photo: Getty]
The research found a 20 per cent increase [Photo: Getty]

“It’s important to emphasize that we’ve looked at two outcomes here. The lower risk of heart disease does seem to outweigh the higher risk of stroke", cautions study co-author Tammy Tong, nutritional epidemiologist. For while the study did focus on a slightly elevated risk of stroke for vegans, it also confirmed that according to other studies, vegetarians and vegans may have a lower risk of heart disease than meat-eaters.

Ten fewer cases of heart disease per 1,000 people over 10 years, versus three more instances of strokes in the same population. 

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Thursday, September 26, 2019

Modifying Our Diets

"Our data indicate that it is actually dairy product consumption that explains much of the differences in greenhouse gas footprints across diets. Yet, at the same time, nutritionists recognize the important role dairy products can have in stunting prevention."
"It would be satisfying to have a silver bullet to address carbon footprints and the impact of food production; however, with problems as complex and global as nutrition, climate change, freshwater depletion and economic development, that's not possible."
"There will always be tradeoffs."
Martin Bloem, director, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, professor of Environmental Health, Bloomberg School
Going vegetarian may not be as good for the environment as you might think

"Dietary shifts don’t have to be as draconian as many people think to have a meaningful impact on the environment."
"Our study found that in the UK, switching to a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy is actually less helpful for reducing greenhouse gas emissions than a diet that includes meat, dairy and eggs for one of three meals, and is exclusively plant-based for the other two meals."
"Certain forms of beef production can significantly reduce our capacity for carbon sequestration. In particular, production that involves deforestation for feed production and grazing land has serious implications for our climate."
"Including beef in our diets at current rates would have grave consequences for the environment."
"There are many parts of the world where eating insects isn’t an outlandish idea. Based on our data, there may be great value in exploring ways to normalize this in other parts of the world."
Dr Keeve E. Nachman, Environmental Health and Engineering, John Hopkins University
Rich countries might opt for less meat — and cheese — so that poor countries can eat more, researchers find. Getty

A new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers published in the journal Global Environmental Change, analyzed the carbon footprint of nine plant-centric diets. A roster that included vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarians (vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy), pescatarian and no red meat -- in 140 countries. According to the study findings, the flexitarian diet -- cutting back on animal products -- may turn out a better commitment for the planet than would excluding meat from human diet altogether.

The study authors speak of a "two-thirds vegan" diet, which is to say, limiting animal product consumption to one meal daily, which would place a lesser strain on the environment than ovo-lacto vegetarianism in almost all of the countries studied (95 percent). Abstaining from dairy products in 64 percent of study nations resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions than ovo-lacto vegetarian diets. Veganism, however, proved to have the lightest environmental impact in almost all of the nations (97 percent).
The study examined the environmental impacts of nine plant-centric diets in 140 countries.  Getty Images
Leaving researchers to conclude that "a theoretical shift" to plant-based eating across the board would effectively see a 70 percent per person drop in food-related greenhouse gases. Diets high in vegetables and other plants, incorporating animals low on the food chain -- mollusks such as clams, oysters and scallops and small fish such as anchovies, herring and sardines -- were found by the researchers to have footprints equal to veganism. Ruminant meats -- beef, lamb and mutton, and goat were "by far" the most greenhouse gas-intensive foods.

Of the 74 foods studied, the impact of each serving of ruminant meats was found to be 40 times more acute than were pulses (beans, chickpeas, lentils), nuts, soy or seeds). Plant-based foods generally represented the least intensive while insects (crickets, mealworms) and forage fish (herring, sardines) were recognized to be "the more climate-friendly animal products, significantly more so than dairy".

According to the study authors, it is vital to understand that their findings emphasize challenges searching out universal solutions for hunger, nutritional concerns or food-related climate impacts. It is therefore, essential that circumstances of individual countries be reflected in policies.

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