Combs Spouts Off

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Posts Tagged ‘medical research’

“Harvesting” babies?

Posted by Richard on December 13, 2006

Let me make it clear up front: I’m not a right-to-lifer. I have a "Pro-Choice on Everything" sticker on my car, I support a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy, and my only objection to federal funding of fetal stem cell research is — like a good libertarian — to the federal funding part.

But there are some arguments of the "pro-life" crowd that deserve to be given some thoughtful consideration — for instance, the argument against partial-birth abortion, or the argument for parental notification.

Or the argument that we’re descending a slippery ethical slope that’s cheapening human life. If this BBC story is true, they’ve slid horrifically far down that slope in the Ukraine:

Healthy new-born babies may have been killed in Ukraine to feed a flourishing international trade in stem cells, evidence obtained by the BBC suggests.

Ukraine has become the self-styled stem cell capital of the world.

There is a trade in stem cells from aborted foetuses, amid unproven claims they can help fight many diseases.

But now there are claims that stem cells are also being harvested from live babies.

Apparently, allegations against a maternity hospital three years ago led to exhumations and autopsies, and someone has now given the BBC video footage of that:

The pictures show organs, including brains, have been stripped – and some bodies dismembered.

A senior British forensic pathologist says he is very concerned to see bodies in pieces – as that is not standard post-mortem practice.

It could possibly be a result of harvesting stem cells from bone marrow.

Hospital number six denies the allegations.

Of course they do. Just as the Chinese deny killing prisoners to harvest their organs for transplants. The denials may even be truthful. Maybe.

But I find the story quite disturbing. I wonder if researchers using stem cells from the Ukraine are at all disturbed.

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Have a hot cocoa and go to bed

Posted by Richard on December 6, 2006

This is another installment in my occasional series of posts about things that are good for you without being boring, unpleasant, or painful (see here, here, here, and here). This time, I have two pieces of advice: eat more chocolate and sleep more.

The first recommendation comes from a Johns Hopkins study. I’ve expressed skepticism about Johns Hopkins data in the past (here and here), but I doubt that there’s any political bias in this study. πŸ™‚

More than 1200 people participated in the study of aspirin’s effects on blood platelets. The finding was the serendipitous result of some study participants’ failure to comply with instructions. They admitted to being "chocoholics" who continued to indulge in their vice even though told not to. Rather than discard their data, researchers compared non-aspirin-taking chocolate-eaters’ results with those from the compliant aspirin-takers, and were surprised. The chocolate-eaters had slower clotting times and less platelet activity byproducts in their urine than the aspirin-takers. The potential health benefit of their modest chocolate consumption is significant (emphasis added):

Their “offense,” say researchers at Johns Hopkins led to what is believed to be the first biochemical analysis to explain why just a few squares of chocolate a day can almost halve the risk of heart attack death in some men and women by decreasing the tendency of platelets to clot in narrow blood vessels.

“What these chocolate ‘offenders’ taught us is that the chemical in cocoa beans has a biochemical effect similar to aspirin in reducing platelet clumping, which can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack,” says Diane Becker, M.P.H., Sc.D., a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Eating a little bit of chocolate or having a drink of hot cocoa as part of a regular diet is probably good for personal health, so long as people don’t eat too much of it, and too much of the kind with lots of butter and sugar,” says Becker.

My second recommendation is based on recent findings based on analysis of data from the long-running Nurses’ Health Study:

Middle-aged women may be able to sleep their way to a trimmer body, new study findings suggest.

In a study that followed more than 68,000 U.S. women for 16 years, researchers found that those who caught more zzz’s each night tended to put on less weight during middle-age.

What’s more, women who typically clocked 5 hours of sleep were one third more likely than those who slept for 7 hours to have a substantial weight gain — 33 pounds or more — during the study period.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and presented earlier this year at a medical conference, add to evidence that sleep habits affect a person’s weight.

Although the reasons aren’t clear, some research suggests that sleep deprivation alters hormones involved in appetite control and metabolism.

It’s also possible that people who sleep fewer hours either eat more or, because of fatigue, exercise less often.

Actually, the AJE article said that the results "were not affected by adjustment for physical activity or dietary consumption." Whatever the reason, more sleep seems to be good for middle-aged women, and may help offset the caloric impact of eating those healthy doses of chocolate.

But I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence in support of this strategy.

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Drink up, fatsos!

Posted by Richard on November 6, 2006

So, let’s say you’re one of the 65% of Americans who are obese. And let’s say you’re worried about the health consequences of those extra pounds — including double the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis, and triple the risk of diabetes. So, what are you going to do about it?

Well, you could walk more, join a gym, and start working out. You could forego that plate of ribs and order a nice salad with low-fat dressing.

Or you could just order a nice bottle of Shiraz to go with those ribs:

Good news for gluttons and anyone else who gets old: Scientists are looking for the antidote for age and disease in a glass of red wine.

Harvard Medical School and National Institute of Aging researchers have found that a natural susbtance found in red wine, known as resveratrol, countered the ravenous ways of mice fed a high-calorie diet and even prolonged their lives.

“Resveratrol can excuse most of the negative effects of being obese in the mice,” said Harvard Medical School professor David Sinclair, one of the study’s authors.

The study compared three groups of mice. The first ate a standard (30% fat) diet, the second ate a high-fat (60%) diet, and the third ate the high-fat diet supplemented with resveratrol.

The third group got just as fat as the second, but suffered none of the ill effects. Their hearts, livers, and other organs remained normal (in fact, somewhat healthier than the standard-diet group’s). Their blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity mirrored the lean group’s. And they lived longer:

… After 114 weeks, 58 percent of the normally fed mice and the resveratrol group were still alive, compared with only 42 percent of the untreated, high-calorie-intake mice. Sinclair reports that resveratrol reduced the risk of death from a high-calorie diet by 31 percent, leading to an increase in life span of 15 percent thus far. More accurate numbers will be available when all the mice pass away. "We are around five months from having final numbers," Sinclair notes, "but there is no question that we are seeing increased longevity." The researchers also note that the resveratrol-treated mice not only live longer than their untreated counterparts, but have more active lives, too–their motor skills have actually improved as they have aged.

Of course, there are caveats. To get as much resveratrol as the mice, you’d have to drink a hundred or more glasses of wine (depending on which news report you believe) — clearly, supplement capsules would be a more practical choice. And everybody from the science reporters to the researchers is mouthing the usual warnings that you always hear regarding nutritional supplements:

While resveratrol supplements are available at many health food stores, experts caution that no one knows whether the compound will work the same way for humans and, perhaps more important, whether high doses of resveratrol are harmful in the long run.

It’s worth noting, though, that researcher David Sinclair founded a company to develop resveratrol-related drugs (in which he and Harvard Medical School have a financial interest).

And Sinclair has been taking resveratrol supplements himself for three years already.

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Grammar saves lives

Posted by Richard on October 19, 2006

If you’re like many people, you’ve wondered why your English teachers made you learn all those grammar rules — you’ve forgotten most of them, and yet you get along just fine.

Of course, if you’re significantly younger than me, your English teachers probably never made you learn them in the first place, believing that any emphasis on tedious subjects like grammar, punctuation, and spelling would merely stifle your creativity and potentially damage your self-esteem.

Well, it turns out that knowing the basics of grammar can help you conquer drug-resistant microbes and save lives:

Studying a potent type of bacteria-fighters found in nature, called antimicrobial peptides, biologists found that they seemed to follow rules of order and placement that are similar to simple grammar laws. Using those new grammar-like rules for how these antimicrobial peptides work, scientists created 40 new artificial bacteria-fighters.

Nearly half of those new germ-fighters vanquished a variety of bacteria and two of them beat anthrax, according to a paper in Thursday’s journal Nature.

This potentially creates not just a new type of weapon against hard-to-fight germs, but a way to keep churning out new and different microbe-attackers so that when bacteria evolve new defenses against one drug, doctors won’t be stymied.

Using grammar as their guide, scientists could easily produce tens of thousands of new bacteria-fighters and test them for use as future drugs, said study lead author Gregory Stephanopoulos, a chemical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Now aren’t you glad that at least Dr. Stephanopoulos and his pals were paying attention in English class?

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Turn off the night light, ladies!

Posted by Richard on June 22, 2006

According to a National Cancer Institute study, women who sleep with a light on, stay up late, or work night shifts face an increased risk of breast cancer.

The researchers exposed human breast cancer tumors, grafted to mice, to blood collected from women under three different conditions: in the middle of the day, after spending the night in darkness, and after being expose to light during the night. The blood collected after darkness suppressed the tumors, while the blood collected after night-time light exposure stimulated tumor growth.

The study suggests the importance of a critical hormone:

The research by the American scientists showed that exposure at night to artificial light could stimulate the growth of human breast tumours by suppressing the levels of the key hormone melatonin.

Melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland at night and helps to regulate a person’s sleeping and waking cycles. Light, however, stops the body from producing it, making the body think that it is daytime.

I’ve been taking melatonin supplements at bedtime for years. It’s cheap, and there’s a wealth of data suggesting it has significant anti-cancer, anti-aging, and anti-oxidant properties. Not to mention that it enhances sleep and cures jet lag.

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Hops for health

Posted by Richard on June 12, 2006

As you contemplate whether to join us for next Saturday’s "Get Dr. Cutter Drunk" Mini Blogger Bash, be sure to factor in the possible health ramifications of attending. For instance, if you’re a male, you might want to consider that drinking lots of good, hoppy beer (like India Pale Ale or Pilsner) can protect you from both prostate enlargement and prostate cancer, according to Oregon State University researchers:

The research, published in a recent issue of Cancer Letters, shows that xanthohumol, a compound found in hops, inhibits NF-kappaB protein in cells along the surface of the prostate gland, said Emily Ho, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise sciences in OSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences and a researcher with OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute. The protein acts like a signal switch that turns on a variety of animal and human malignancies, including prostate cancer.

"We’ve shown that the addition of xanthohumol in a cell culture blocks the signal of NF-KappaB protein and works to slow down the growth of benign prostatic hyperplasia and malignant prostate cancer cells," Ho said.

Xanthohumol, which belongs to a group of plant compounds called flavonoids, can also trigger programmed cell death, which plays a role in cancer prevention, as uncontrolled cell reproduction is a cause of cancer.

But don’t rush out to stock the refrigerator. Xanthohumol, is present in such small amounts that a person would have to drink more than 17 beers to consume the same amount found effective in the study, Ho said.

I don’t get Ho’s cautionary note. Beers vary by more than an order of magnitude in how much hops — and therefore xanthohumol — they contain, so I’m not sure how meaningful the number 17 is. If that’s 17 Buds or Millers, then you could replace them with 3 or 4 American IPAs — or maybe 1 or 2 double IPAs. Besides, what’s the problem with drinking more than 17 beers? I mean, Ho didn’t specify a time constraint. πŸ™‚

You say you’re not into beer? Well, fear not — according to researchers in Seattle (what is it about scientists in the Pacific Northwest and alcohol research?), you can protect your prostate with some red wine instead:

Drinking a glass of red wine a day may cut a man’s risk of prostate cancer in half, and the protective effect appears to be strongest against the most aggressive forms of the disease, according to a new study led by investigators at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

"We found that men who consumed four or more glasses of red wine per week reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 50 percent," Stanford said. "Among men who consumed four or more 4-ounce glasses of red wine per week, we saw about a 60 percent lower incidence of the more aggressive types of prostate cancer," said Stanford, senior author of the study. "The more clinically aggressive prostate cancer is where the strongest reduction in risk was observed."

As for those of you of the female persuasion, you can benefit from the xanthohumol in beer and the resveratrol in red wine, too:

In more news from the Experimental Biology 2004 meeting, held April 17 to 21 in Washington, DC, S. Pinheiro-Silva, I. Azevedo, and C. Calhau from the Universidade do Porto, in Portugal have shown that the phenolic phytochemicals epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), xanthohumol, and resveratrol slow breast cancer growth in human cell cultures. The compounds are found in tea, beer, and wine respectively, a fact that appears to contradict the results of previous research that established an association between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer in women. …

It was discovered that all of the compounds possessed an inhibitory effect on breast cancer cell growth, with xanthohumol eliciting an antiproliferative effect more rapidly and at a lower concentration than the other compounds.

Of course, alcohol does have negative health consequences, too. So you may want to order some of this. Then, drink up — to your health!

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They call this science?

Posted by Richard on March 31, 2006

In the past few months, several studies have been widely reported that supposedly discredited some widely-used nutritional supplement or alternative treatment. The fine folks at the Life Extension Foundation (LEF) have had enough of the shoddy studies, misleading press releases, and terrible reporting, and they’re preparing a full-fledged response. A preliminary article is available on their website now:

Over the past several months, the media has questioned the efficacy of several popular dietary supplements. In the upcoming June 2006 issue of Life Extension magazine, we dissect these negative media reports down to the bone to reveal the hard scientific facts.

In doing so, we expose the absurdity of the headline-hungry media making proclamations such as “another natural remedy bit the dust” when describing the recent glucosamine study. We also reveal the inappropriateness of conventional doctors, with little knowledge about the proper use of nutrients, but with strong financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, conducting studies that contain so many flaws that their findings are largely irrelevant.

As usual for LEF, this article is footnoted to a fare-thee-well — 181 references, most to studies published in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals. If you print the article, it runs about 6 pages, depending on margin settings, etc. The references add about 6 more pages. The article provides brief preliminary critiques — scathing ones — of studies claiming that:

  • Eating a low-fat diet doesn’t reduce women’s risk of heart attacks, strokes, breast cancer, or colon cancer.
  • Calcium and vitamin D don’t protect women’s bones.
  • Glucosamine and chondroitin aren’t effective for osteoarthritis of the knee.
  • Saw palmetto is ineffective in treating prostate enlargement.

Each of those four claims is easily shown to be false. In fact, a couple of them are even contradicted by the studies, which were mischaracterized in press releases and media reports.

My favorite is the calcium and vitamin D study, which appeared in February’s New England Journal of Medicine. LEF’s Bill Faloon said it may be  "one of the most poorly designed studies in the history of modern medicine."

In theory, one group of women was assigned to take a calcium – vitamin D supplement and another group was assigned to take a placebo. Reportedly, the supplement group had just as many hip fractures as the placebo group.

Actually, the study did find a 29% reduction in hip fractures among the subset of the supplement group who actually took the supplements. You see, about 40% of the supplement group didn’t "achieve a standard rate of compliance," meaning they took less than 80% of the calcium and vitamin D they were supposed to take. But that didn’t matter to the MDs and PhDs conducting the study (emphasis and footnote from article):

This meant that women in the active group (the one given the calcium-vitamin D supplements) were counted as having taken the calcium-vitamin D, whether they really took the supplement or not. According to the scientists who conducted this study:

“Participants were followed for major outcomes, regardless of their adherence to the study medication…”

The “study medication” mentioned above is the calcium-vitamin D supplement. The fact that a study could be published in a medical journal “regardless” of whether the participants actually took the active ingredient defies logic.

Presumably, the placebo group had the same poor rate of compliance (since participants didn’t know whether it was the supplement or the placebo they were failing to take). So what we really have here is a $10 million federally-funded study proving that women who fail to take their calcium and vitamin D are just as likely to break a hip as women who fail to take a placebo. Unbe-frickin-lievable.

There’s more. That’s only one of several serious flaws with the calcium study. And the other studies are equally unimpressive. Read the whole thing — it’s your tax dollars at work and your health at stake.

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News you can use

Posted by Richard on May 13, 2005

I almost missed this important post at PolySciFi Blog:

Drinking whisky protects you from cancer. (h/t Daily Pundit)

The effect appears to be similar to the one provided by red wine, but better. So drink up!

Other Recent Panglossian News
Drinking beer induces neuron growth
Being a little overweight (by BMI) is good for your health (statistically)
Mastrubation fights prostate cancer

Jeez, I’ve been living a healthier life than I realized.

UPDATE: For the benefit of those who want to explore their cancer protection options, this site should help.

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