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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The skinny on blood transfusions: a modern day miracle?

Most of us have read the biblical accounts of water being turned into wine.  Now Canadian scientists have discovered how to turn skin into blood.  This miraculous breakthrough could revolutionize cancer treatments and solve the blood donor shortage.

What is more because the blood is made from the patient’s own cells, there is no danger of either rejection or infection.

The team from McMaster University, Ontario say that the process has been so successful that treatment could be available within two years.

Dr Mick Bhatia who headed the team said “People will effectively become their own donors. We are very excited and very enthusiastic about it. There is a lot of work to be done but I would be disappointed if we were not trying it on patients by 2012.”

The research, published in Nature, is part of ongoing attempts across the world to revert adult cells back to their original stem cell form. Stem cells are “master cells” which can potentially be manipulated in a laboratory to become any other cell in the body.

Human Skin Cells

What’s unique about this process is that it misses out the “in-between” stage of turning the skin cells back to stem cells and then converting them to blood cells. Instead, the cell is reprogrammed directly by inserting a specific transcription factor – a protein that interacts with DNA to activate genes – and applying cytokines or signaling molecules.

The result – within a month the skin is converted to blood.

Leukemia patients are likely to be the first to receive transfusions of perfectly matched blood generated from their own skin. In future, laboratory manufactured blood could help to plug the gap caused by donor shortages. The technique also holds out the promise of making other kinds of cell, including neurons with the potential to treat brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Skin cells from both young and old people were used in the research to prove that age of donor made no difference to the process.

Next the team plans to assess what kind of production capacity might be possible with the cells, and whether they can successfully be stored in deep freeze.

As always, SRxA’s Word on Health will be watching these developments and bringing them straight to you.