Sniffing Out Leukemia?

3 doctorsOK Ladies – here’s a question for you.   If you suffer from seasonal allergic rhinitis who do you go and see?

(a)  An allergist

(b)  An oncologist

(c)  A hematologist

If you answered (a) you’re probably feeling pretty confident right now.  After all the more common term for seasonal allergic rhinitis is hayfever and that’s something best managed by an allergist.  Right?

Not so fast! Maybe (b) or (c) would have been better choices.  You see, a team of scientists looking into the interplay of the immune system and cancer have just found a link between a history of airborne allergies – in particular those to plants, grass and trees – with risk of blood cancers in women.

Notably, the study did not find the same association in men, which suggests a possible gender-specific role in chronic stimulation of the immune system that may lead to the development of hematologic cancers.

The findings were published online last week ahead of the December print issue of the American Journal of Hematology.

allergic rhinitisTo the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study to suggest important gender differences in the association between allergies and hematologic malignancies,” says Mazyar Shadman, MD, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

According to Shadman, who led the research, the immune system’s potential role in the cause of cancer is a focus of intense scientific interest. “If your immune system is over-reactive, then you have problems; if it’s under-reactive, you’re going to have problems. Increasing evidence indicates that dysregulation of the immune system, such as you find in allergic and autoimmune disorders, can affect survival of cells in developing tumors.”

The study included a large sample of men and women aged 50-76 years old from western Washington from the VITamins And Lifestyle (VITAL) cohort study. Participants answered a 24-page questionnaire that focused on: (i) health history and cancer risk factors, (ii) medication and supplement use, and (iii) diet. Participants provided information on age, race/ethnicity, education, smoking, diet (fruit and vegetable intake), and other lifestyle characteristics, self-rated health, medical history, and family history of leukemia or lymphoma.

History of asthma and allergies was also taken, including allergies to plants, grasses or trees; mold or dust; cats, dogs or other animals; insect bites or stings; foods; and medications.  Of the 79,300 VITAL participants who filled out the questionnaires, more than 66,000 individuals were selected after eliminating those who had a prior history of malignancies other than non-melanoma skin cancers and missing information on baseline cancer history.

Participants were then followed for eight years until they either withdrew from the study, moved away, had a cancer diagnosis other than hematologic malignancy or non-melanoma skin cancer, or died.

seer_logoIncidence of hematologic malignancies and other cancers was identified via the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) cancer registry of western Washington.

Of the participants, 681 developed a hematologic malignancy during the follow-up period. These participants were more likely to have two or more first-degree relatives with a family history of leukemia or lymphoma, to be less active and rank their health status as low.

A history of allergies to airborne antigens was associated with a higher risk of hematologic malignancies. The most statistically significant association was seen with allergies to plants, grass and trees.

cat allergyThere was also an increased risk of plasma-cell neoplasms for participants who reported a history of allergies to cats, dogs or other animals. Plasma-cell neoplasms are conditions, both cancerous and noncancerous, in which the body makes too many plasma cells.

When stratified by gender, the incidence of blood cancers in response to these allergens was increased in women but not in men. The reason for this is as yet unknown.

However, Shadman and colleagues warn, “Given the limited number of cases within each sub-type of hematologic cancer, the risk estimates need to be interpreted with caution … and the possibility of chance finding due to multiple testing should be recognized.”

Even so, if you’re a women with allergies, you may want to keep a close eye on your blood work.

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Side Effects of Sex

monday-morning-blues--large-prf-1124686656It’s Monday morning, it’s cold and the holidays are still too far away to be a reality for most of us.  Not a lot to be cheerful about?  Right!

Never fear, SRxA’s Word on Health is here to help start your week off right with some health news that may just bring a smile to your face.

While many people associate a healthy lifestyle with grueling workouts, strict dieting and general deprivation and misery  – this is a misconception.

According to Dr Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician, web entrepreneur and New York Times best selling author, healthy habits can be among the most rewarding.  Take sex. It counts as moderately intense exercise plus it boosts numerous aspects of both physical and mental health. As long as you’re engaging in safe-sex practices, increasing your sexual activity is a surefire strategy to better health!

benefits of sexMercola suggests regular sex can reduce stress, bolster self-esteem and foster feelings of intimacy and bonding between partners.  Better still, a healthy sex life can result in a longer, healthier and, most would agree, more enjoyable life.

In case that’s not enough – here’s 10 more healthy side effects of sex:

1. Improved Immunity

People who have sex frequently have significantly higher levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA is part of the immune system that forms your body’s first line of defense. Its job is to fight off invading organisms at their entry points, reducing or even eliminating the need for activation of your body’s immune system. This may explain why people who have sex frequently also take fewer sick days.

2. Heart Health

According to one study, men who made love regularly (at least twice a week) are 45% less likely to develop heart disease than those who did so once a month or less.

Sexual activity not only provides many of the same benefits to your heart as exercise but also keeps levels of estrogen and testosterone in balance, which is important for heart health.

3. Lower Blood Pressure

Sexual activity, and specifically intercourse, is linked to better stress response and lower blood pressure.

4. It’s a Form of Exercise

Sex helps to boost your heart rate, burn calories and strengthen muscles, just like exercise. In fact, research recently revealed that sex burns about 4 calories a minute for men and 3 for women, making it (at times) a ‘significant’ form of exercise. It can even help you to maintain your flexibility and balance.

5. Pain Relief

Sexual activity releases pain-reducing hormones and has been found to help reduce or block back and leg pain, as well as pain from menstrual cramps, arthritis and headaches. One study even found that sexual activity can lead to partial or complete relief of headache in some migraine and cluster-headache patients.

6. Help to Reduce Risk of Prostate Cancer

Research has shown that men who ejaculate at least 21 times a month (during sex or masturbation) have a lower risk of prostate cancer.

sex and sleep7. Improve Sleep

After sex, the relaxation-inducing hormone prolactin is released, which may help you to nod off more quickly. The “love hormone” oxytocin, released during orgasm, also promotes sleep.

8. Stress Relief

Sex triggers your body to release it’s natural feel-good chemicals, helping to ease stress and boost pleasure, calm and self-esteem. Research also shows that those who have sexual intercourse responded better when subjected to stressful situations like speaking in public.

9. Boost Your Libido

The more often you have sex, the more likely you are to want to keep doing it. There’s a mental connection there but also a physical one, particularly for women. More frequent sex helps to increase vaginal lubrication, blood flow and elasticity, which in turn make sexual activity more enjoyable.

10. Improved Bladder Control in Women

Intercourse helps to strengthen pelvic floor muscles, which contract during orgasm. This can help women improve their bladder control and avoid incontinence.

Happy Monday!

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School is in Session and So Too Are Germs

calculusWhile many parents don’t remember much algebra or calculus, most know all too well that school + kids = sick days.

And with more than 200 cold viruses identified,  it’s no wonder parents feel like they are fighting a losing battle when it comes to keeping their kids healthy.

Kids will be exposed to germs and inevitably get colds, even with the best preventive measures, and that’s OK,” said Jessica McIntyre, MD, family physician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

According to McIntyre, young children will get between 7 and 8 colds a year and school-age children will average 5-6 colds a year. Kids tend to get more colds during the school year because they are in an enclosed classroom surrounded by other children who are sharing these very common viruses.

Parents sometimes worry that they have done something wrong to cause frequent colds, or that their child is not healthy. Actually, cold viruses help build a child’s immune system and are an unavoidable part of growing up,” McIntyre said.

smackdown_school_germs-e1317828551255Nevertheless, we bring you some tips to help keep your child’s sick days to a minimum

  1. You’ve taught your kids their ABCs –  now teach them their CCCs?
    a. Clean – wash your hands and make sure your kids wash their hands frequently
    b. Cover – cover your cough and sneeze, preferably with a tissue, but if one is not available, cough or sneeze into your elbow
    c. Contain – stay at home if you are sick; germs are one thing that aren’t good to share
  2. Family flu vaccines. Everyone who is 6 months or older should be vaccinated. Talk to your physician about which type of vaccine is right for your family members.
  3. Have your children wash their hands as soon as they get home from school.
  4. Change into “home clothes and shoes.”  It helps keep germs, allergens and dirt out of the house making it easier to keep clean. Plus, you won’t be searching the house for shoes that were kicked off under the couch.This is especially beneficial if you have a young infant at home
  5. Wash their lunch box daily. Lunch boxes carry more than veggies and fruit to and from school. They also carry A LOT of germs. If they’re dishwasher safe, run them through the sanitizing cycle at the end of each day. If not, spray them down with vinegar and water and wipe them clean before packing a new lunch
  6. Backpacks are another huge germ culprit. They make their way onto tables, beds and desks and can transfer nasty germs to all of these surfaces. Wash backpacks once a week to minimize the spread of germs.
  7. Reduce consumption of sugary foods before and during school. Consuming just a teaspoon of sugar weakens the immune system for up to 4 hours. To help the body fight germs, make sure to offer a low sugar breakfast and low sugar lunch. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. They are generally loaded with sugars.

big-stinky-germsAnd if you’d still like to do more to keep your little darlings safe, there is some evidence that certain  products can be effective in cold prevention if taken regularly:
(i) Probiotics: 1 gram mixed with milk twice daily
(ii) Vitamin C: 1 gram daily
(iii) Zinc sulfate: 15 mg syrup or 10 mg tablet daily

Despite all that, if they do develop a cold, don’t stress about it!  Everyone gets sick sometimes. And while we all hate to see  kids feeling bad, just remember, when they get sick their bodies are building up their ability to fight future infections.

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Immune to Stress?

mouse-frazzled-bit-stressedFollowing on from last Friday’s post on the beneficial effects of stress hormones, we bring you news of study that helps us to better understand the stress process at a cellular level and how stress can lead to mood disorders.

The new research from Ohio State University, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, shows that certain cells from the immune system are recruited to the brain during stress, causing symptoms of anxiety.

Researchers discovered the dynamic mind-body interaction – a two-way communication from the central nervous system to the rest of the body – and back to the central nervous system that ultimately influences behavior during prolonged stress.

Under prolonged stress, the brain sends signals out to the bone marrow, calling up monocytes. The cells travel to specific regions of the brain and generate inflammation that causes anxiety-like behavior.

In experiments conducted in mice, researchers showed that repeated stress exposure caused the highest concentration of monocytes migrating to the brain. The cells surrounded blood vessels and penetrated brain tissue in several areas linked to fear and anxiety, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and their presence led to anxiety-like behavior in the mice.

“In the absence of tissue damage, we have cells migrating to the brain in response to the region of the brain that is activated by the stressor,” said John Sheridan, senior author of the study. “In this case, the cells are recruited to the brain by signals generated by the animal’s interpretation of social defeat as stressful.

mouse-in-fearThe mice in this study were subjected to stress that might resemble a person’s response to persistent life stressors. In this model male mice were given time to establish a hierarchy, and then an aggressive male was added to the group for two hours. This elicits a “fight or flight” response in the resident mice as they are repeatedly defeated. The experience of social defeat leads to submissive behaviors and the development of anxiety-like behavior.

MONOCYTEMice subjected to zero, one, three or six cycles of this social defeat were then tested for anxiety symptoms. The more cycles of social defeat, the higher the anxiety symptoms. For example, the mice took longer to enter an open space and opted for darkness rather than light when given the choice. Anxiety symptoms corresponded to higher levels of monocytes that had traveled to the animals’ brains from the blood. Additional experiments showed that these cells did not originate in the brain, but traveled there from the bone marrow.

Exactly what happens at this point in the brain remains unknown, but the research offers clues. The monocytes that travel to the brain don’t respond to natural anti-inflammatory steroids in the body and have characteristics signifying they are in a more inflammatory state.

These results indicate that inflammatory gene expression occurs in the brain in response to the stressor.

These findings do not apply to all forms of anxiety, the scientists noted, but they are a game-changer in research on stress-related mood disorders.

Our data alter the idea of the neurobiology of mood disorders,” said Eric Wohleb, a pre-doctoral fellow in Ohio State’s Neuroscience Graduate Studies Program. “We’re saying something outside the central nervous system – something from the immune system – is having a profound effect on behavior.”

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Egging on Allergies?

Friends, family, colleagues and regular readers of SRxA’s Word on Health already know about my egg allergy.  What they may not know about is my egg aversion.  Just typing the “e” word makes me queasy.  Thinking about eggs makes me cringe and actually seeing them, especially hard boiled, fills me with revulsion.

So, with some trepidation, I bring you this breaking health story.

According to a study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine by giving children with egg allergies increasingly higher doses of the very food they are allergic to researchers found they could eliminate or ease reactions in most of them.

The study conducted at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and four other U.S. institutions treated 40 egg allergic children with escalating doses of eggs – an approach known as oral immunotherapy.

In the 10 month study, 40 children, aged 5 -18, received escalating doses of egg-white powder while 15 received a cornstarch placebo.  35 of the 40 children treated with egg immunotherapy experienced improvement. Five dropped out of the study, four of them due to allergic reactions. Eleven of the 35 patients experienced complete long-term elimination of egg-related allergic reactions. The rest of the children were able to tolerate higher doses of egg with only mild or no symptoms.

More than a quarter of the children in our study lost their egg allergies altogether, but we also saw dramatic improvements in those who didn’t, which in and of itself is an important therapeutic achievement,” says Robert Wood, M.D, director of allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. “These children went from having serious allergic reactions after a single bite of an egg-containing cookie to consuming eggs with minimal or no symptoms.”

This is important because it can protect against serious allergic reactions from accidental or incidental exposures and give patients and parents a peace of mind at restaurants, parties and other venues where food control is difficult or impossible.

But while this may be good news for the estimated 3% of U.S. with egg allergies, this blogger is not so sure she’d be a candidate.  The thought of having to eat escalating doses of the dreaded “e” word is more abhorrent to me than the thought of a future filled with quiche and ice cream!

On a more serious note, we’d also like to brings readers some sage advice from allergist David Amrol MD : “Although oral immunotherapy is our best chance for a food allergy cure, it is not ready for mainstream use until protocols are further refined. Patients who are not enrolled in clinical trials must continue to rely on allergen avoidance, patient education, and self-injectable epinephrine.”

Fighting flu in just two hours

As we approach midsummer, while most of us are enjoying days at the pool or beach and long evenings of grilling out, a few people have already begun the countdown to winter frosts and flu season.

For those in the latter group, SRxA’s Word on Health brings you good news!

Researchers from San Diego State University and Nebraska Medical Center have developed a synthetic protein known as EP67 that can fight off flu, in just two hours.

Until recently, EP67 had been used as an adjuvant for vaccines. When added to a vaccine, adjuvants help to activate the immune system. Which led scientists to wonder what effect the synthetic protein might have on its own?

Dr. Joy Phillips, lead author, said: “The flu virus is very sneaky and actively keeps the immune system from detecting it for a few days until you are getting symptoms. Our research showed that  introducing EP67 into the body within 24 hours of exposure to the flu virus caused the immune system to react almost immediately to the threat, well before your body normally would.”

EP67 is useful as a weapon against flu because it works on the immune system rather than the virus.  So it doesn’t matter which flu strain a patient becomes infected with.  If a new strain of flu or some other infectious disease appears, such as occurred with SARA and H1N1, EP67 could be useful as a tool even before the pathogen itself has been identified.

And even though this study concentrated on the benefits of EP67 for flu, researchers are hopeful that it might also be useful for combating other respiratory diseases and fungal infections.

Current tests are being done on laboratory animals, mainly mice, by infecting them with an influenza virus and then administering EP67 within 24 hours. They found that the treated mice did not get sick, while the untreated ones did.  Most mice infected with flu will lose approximately 20% of their body weight – this was the case with the untreated mice. The mice given EP67 lost just an average of 6%. Some mice were even given a lethal dose of flu virus, and then administered EP67 – none of them died.

All of this sounds so promising future studies are already planned to look at EP67’s effect on other pathogens and its functions within different types of body cells.

With this type of good news on the way, maybe we can all stop worrying about the winter and get back to enjoying summer before it’s gone!

Diabetes Drug may Repair Injured Brains

Here’s a good brain teaser for a Wednesday.  What do an old diabetes drug, brain injury and Alzheimer’s Disease have in common?

Here’s some clues to help you solve the riddle.

(i)           Metformin is a widely used treatment for type II diabetes

(ii)          An increasing proportion of people with Alzheimer’s Disease also have diabetes

(iii)         Hyperinsulinemia (excess levels of insulin in the blood) may enhance the onset and progression of neurodegeneration

Have you solved it?  If so, congratulations!

If not, the answer, according to data just published in the journal Cell Stem Cell is that the former may hold the clue to treating the latter.

In other words, the study suggests that metformin, an anti-diabetes drug first discovered in the 1920’s, is able to help activate the mechanism that signals stem cells to generate brain cells.

Principal investigator, Freda Miller, a Professor from the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto
says “If you could take stem cells that normally reside in our brains and somehow use drugs to recruit them into becoming appropriate neural cell types, then you may be able to promote repair and recovery in at least some of the many brain disorders and injuries for which we currently have no treatment.”

The research involved laboratory experiments using both mouse and human brain stem cells, as well as learning and memory tests performed on live mice given the drug.

Miller and her colleagues started by adding metformin to stem cells from the brains of mice, then repeated the experiment with human brain stem cells generated in the lab. In both cases, the stem cells gave rise to new brain cells.

They then tested the drug in lab mice and found that those given daily doses of metformin for two or three weeks had increased brain cell growth and outperformed rodents not given the drug in learning and memory tasks.

In the key experiment, mice were forced to learn the position of a platform hidden under the surface of a water-filled maze and then asked rapidly to learn a new position.

Mice were injected with either metformin or saline for 38 days. On days 22 through 38, they learned the initial position of the platform, which provided an escape from the water-filled maze.  Then the platform was moved to the opposite side of the maze, and the animals were asked again to learn its position. In both tasks, the mice learned the platform positions with equivalent speed.

But when they were put back in the maze – this time with the platform removed – control mice spent more time searching for it in the original position, while the metformin-treated animals preferentially looked in the new region.

The implication  is that metformin helped the mice form their new memories of the second platform position. Further analysis showed that their enhanced ability was paralleled by an increase in the number of  neurons.

In a separate study researchers have shown that metformin can increase lifespan and delay the onset of cognitive impairment in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease.

Taken together, these findings raise the possibility that metformin’s ability to enhance neurogenesis might have a positive impact in some nervous system disorders.

Miller’s team is already planning a pilot study to test metformin in young patients with acquired brain damage, either as result of treating a childhood brain tumor or from a traumatic head injury.

We will report back to you with results, as they are published.