Friday, March 23, 2012

Get the Facts Before you Judge

As a biologist, I am an advocate for increasing the knowledge about women's health issues. In the wake of the very controversial Obama birth control mandate (which states that all employers must provide insurance that covers birth control), I've decided to write about the use of birth control. And guys, don't turn off on me here, because you need to know about these facts as well! Chances are the woman in your life would like you to be informed of this issue.
To begin, the birth control that is being talked about is "the Pill". If you are not a biologist or someone familiar with how birth control works, please visit the Discovery Health news link provided here: Birth Control Overview.  It is ignorant to have an opinion on something without knowing how it works/what it does, and birth control is no exception. Discovery Health News does a wonderful job at explaining in simple terms the biology behind the pill. Here is just a quick summery: the pill works by mimicking the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which prevents the follicles from releasing an egg into the ovary. Essentially, the body "thinks" it's already released an egg. Thus, they have been long used to prevent pregnancy.

However, pregnancy prevention isn't the only use of birth control. I am saddened to see how many people are ignorant of the many medicinal application of "the Pill". The fact is that doctor's are now prescribing birth control to treat a variety of women's health issues. I am going to list and explain just a few conditions which can be treated with birth control:

  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: this is a condition in which (as the name suggests) cysts form on the ovaries. It is often associated with excess androgen and irregular menstrual cycles. Birth control helps balance hormones to normal levels so that the menstrual cycle is stabilized.
  • Endometriosis: This condition occurs when the lining of the uterus (the endometrium) grows in other places in the body, such as the pelvic lining, ovaries, and rectum. It often results in infertility. Birth control is often used to stop periods in women who have this condition. 
  • Menstrual Cramps, PMS, and Dysmenorrhea (Painful Periods): These are all unpleasant side affects of the menstrual cycle. Sometimes, they can become so severe that they become debilitating. Birth control works by thinning the uterine lining, which in the long run decreases uterine contractions associated with cramping and pain. 
  • Acne: By regulating the hormones the occur during the menstrual cycle, birth control helps prevent hormonal break outs. 
There are more conditions, but these are the most prominent. As you can see, birth control access is a crucial life line for many women. It is no longer just for pregnancy prevention. Today we live in an age where a woman's body is under her control. Women of all races, age groups, backgrounds, and income levels should have full access to the birth control they need. If it is against your belief, don't take it. Every woman should have the choice of whether she takes birth control or not. The Los Angeles Times published a statistic from the National Institute of Health that states 62% of women (out of an estimated 62 million women) use some type of contraception, with 28% using the pill. This is a staggering amount, and it shows that the pill is extremely relevant in the life of a modern day woman. Why are the men of this country deciding women's health issues? Maybe it's because they have their viagra covered by their health insurance. Which is something to think about....


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Red Meat Death Sentence

I hate to break it you all, but there is another study out on the consequences of eating red meat. This time, it can really impact you, as consuming red meat is now linked to shaving years of your life (Red Meat Consumption Linked to Increased Risk of Total, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality).  As shellshocked as you may be at this news, this isn't the first time red meat has been found unhealthy. Hot dogs have been notoriously pegged as bad for heart disease and cholesterol.  So put down that salami and pepperoni sandwich and consider this study from Harvard School of Public Health.

Researchers followed 37,698 men and 83,644 women who were free from Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) and cancer at the the start of the study over a period a certain period of years (22 years for men and 28 years for women). The diets of the participants were assessed every 4 years through a survey. The study took into account disease risk factors, such as age, family disease history, body mass index, and physical activity. 
Here is a quick run through of the results:

  • 23,926 deaths were documented in the studies ( 5,910 from CVD and 9,464 from cancer).
  • Regular consumption of one  daily serving of red meat increased mortality risk by 13%
  • Regular consumption of one daily serving of processed red meat (hot dogs, bacon) increased morality risk by 20%
  • CVD disease mortality risk increased by 18 and 21% (for unprocessed and processed meat respectively)
  • Cancer mortality risk increased by 10 and 16% (for unprocessed and processed meat respectively)
  • Here is the scary one: 9.3% of deaths in men and 7.6% in women could have been prevented if all the participants had consumed less than 0.5 servings per day of red meat.

Why such a high risk factor? Red meat, especially processed meat, contains ingredients that increase the possibility of contracting CVD and developing cancer. These include saturated fat, nitrates (for all you hot dog and bacon lovers out there), and sodium, not to mention the carcinogenic compounds formed during cooking processes.

So the secret to a longer life? Cut down the red meat consumption! Instead substitute healthier sources of protein, such as poultry, fish, legumes, and grains. So the next time you order that cold cut sandwich at Subway, think that you may just be eating the years of your life away....

Original Paper:
An Pan, Qi Sun, Adam M. Bernstein, Matthias B. Schulze, JoAnn E. Manson, Meir J. Stampfer, Walter C. Willett, Frank B. Hu. Red Meat Consumption and Mortality.Archives of Internal Medicine, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Wiles of a Woman in Red

Women wearing the color red. This seems to be a common "stunner" stereotype for men. She is so distractingly gorgeous that he can't but feel helpless.  Now, there is an actual scientific explanation for this mysterious phenomenon. According to an article on Science Magazine, (The Red Dress Effect) men rate women wearing red clothing as more interested in sex.
A simple experiment was done by Adam Pazda et al (an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Rochester), in which 25 men were shown pictures of a woman wearing red or white t-shirts. They were then asked to answer how they gauged her receptiveness to sex. The results? Men rated the woman dressed in red about 1-1.5 points higher in respect to being sexually receptive. Simply stated, men find that a woman wearing red is a "come hither" signal, thus she would be more readily accepting of any type of romantic advance.

Well here is finally an explanation for all the red and pink we see at Valentine's Day. And now we understand why lingerie is so popular around Christmas and Valentine's Day. Where does the preference come from? Scientists believe it passed down from our own evolution. When many female primates become fertile, their estrogen levels peak, opening blood vessels and flushing their faces. This "cue" is enough for the males to make their move.

So ladies, looking for some attention? Wear red on your next occasion. And guys? At least you are now aware that a lovely lady in red will probably catch your attention. Just be careful how you pursue, as the red may be a misleading clue.


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why your mother was right about eating your broccoli

We all remember those days in our childhood when vegetables were oh-so-yucky. We'd push them around our plate and would be denied our dessert if we didn't finish them. One of my least favorites was broccoli and cauliflower, yet my mother insisted I needed to eat as many as my age. Well, she was right.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables (such as cauliflower, cabbage, horseradish and turnip, among others) contain a compound known as sulforaphane that works through epigenetics to prevent cancer (Eat Your Broccoli: Another Mechanism Discovered by Which Sulforaphane Prevents Cancer). Epigenetics is the study of how genes are turned on/off or expressed beyond the obvious genetic code. DNA is effected by the addition of methyl and acetyl groups, as well as enzymes known as histone deacetylaces (HDACs). In terms of sulforaphane, it acts as a HDAC inhibitor, and it prevents the deactivation of tumor suppressor genes affected by HDAC.

However, a new mechanism for sulforaphane has been discovered, and it works in conjunction with HDAC inhibition, according to a new study by the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Sulforaphane has been seen to provide DNA methylation.
DNA methylation turns off genes, thus it controls what genetic material gets transcribed when cell replicate, as well as the cellular components present inside the cell during cell to cell communication. When working in conjunction with HDAC inhibition, it helps prevent the perturbation of the cell cycle (A perturbation that cancer readily exploits). Disruption of DNA methylation also causes general havoc, such as neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, and even immune function. 

So mom was right. Eat your broccoli and help your DNA remain methylated and HDAC free!

Original Paper: Anna Hsu, Carmen P Wong, Zhen Yu, David E Williams, Roderick H Dashwood, Emily Ho. Promoter de-methylation of cyclin D2 by sulforaphane in prostate cancer cellsClinical Epigenetics, 2011; 3 (1): 3 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Know your blood type? Think again.

I have not abandoned you, dear readers! Nor has the amazing world of biology had any shortage of wonderful new discoveries! I have simply been away on a European holiday, and was too busy sight-seeing to sit down at my computer.

When I opened up my favorite science websites today, a story popped out at my in less then 20 seconds. Two new blood types, Langereis and Junior (+ or -), have been identified (Blood Mystery Solved: Two New Blood Types Identified). These blood types reside mainly in Japanese populations, as well as in certain European gypsies. As many of you know, the most common blood types are A, B, AB, and O. These refer to the specific proteins found on the surface of your blood cells.

The February issue of Nature Genetics presents a study by Helias et al that identifies two new proteins, ABC6 and ABCG2 (proteins responsible for Langereis and Junior blood types). This is significant as the last blood proteins were discovered ten years ago, and this brings the total surface protein number to 32.
While these two blood types are rare, the proteins have been found to carry cancer drug resistance. This may have large implications in how we prescribe cancer treatments.

You may be surprised to learn that beyond the typical blood types, there are 8 others, which have names such as Duffy, Diego, and Lutheran. Langereis and Junior now will join this list. Knowing the exact blood type is important for transfusions, as well as knowing the compatibility of a fetus with the mother. Rejection makes organ and tissue transplants difficult, as the immune system will attack the "non-self".

I cannot stress it enough how important it is that everyone know their blood type. Transfusions are as common as colds in medicine, especially if trauma is being treated. One does not need an auto-immune attack that could result in death on top of the injuries one is suffering. Please be as aware as you can about your own biology to avoid any unpleasant side effects.

Original Paper:
 Virginie Helias, Carole Saison, Bryan A Ballif, Thierry Peyrard, Junko Takahashi, Hideo Takahashi, Mitsunobu Tanaka, Jean-Charles Deybach, HervĂ© Puy, Maude Le Gall, Camille Sureau, Bach-Nga Pham, Pierre-Yves Le Pennec, Yoshihiko Tani, Jean-Pierre Cartron, Lionel Arnaud. ABCB6 is dispensable for erythropoiesis and specifies the new blood group system Langereis.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Some advice for Valentine's day: Save the Best for Last and Always Protect Yourself

Well my dear readers, Valentine's Day is just around the corner. But before you run out the door for flowers and chocolate and sweep your sweetie off their feet, I have some scientific advice from the biological world. You follow these, and I am sure your valentine's day will be awesome.

First piece of advice: Save the best for last.
We all have heard that saying. The best thing should be last. Humans experience pleasure from things that are last, such as the graduation ceremony, the dessert after dinner, or a goodbye hug. A recent study done by University of Michigan psychologist Ed O'Brian was aimed at seeing if this phrase has some psychological truth (What kind of chocolate is best?). And how exactly did he test this? By having participants eat chocolate and rate which one is best (I wish I was in this study!). Participants drew out 5 different flavors of chocolate from a bag. Some participants were told "Here is the next one" until the last piece was drawn. Once the last piece was obtained,  some participants were told "Here is the last one". Participants were then asked to rate which one was the best. Those who were told there was a "last piece" marked it as being the best 65% of the time over those who weren't told there was a last (who marked the last piece as being the best only 22% of the time). So for valentine's day, if you have several surprises/gifts/activities planned, SAVE THE BEST ONE FOR LAST! Have I said it enough?

Second Piece of Advice: Always Protect Yourself
Everyone should be aware of the serious nature of STDs. In July 2011, the CDC released a report of a a strain of gonerrhea that is resistant to cephalosporins, the antibiotic currently being used to treat it. Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine has called for action to prevent this strain from spreading further (Scientists sound alarm over threat of untreatable gonerrhea). According to this article, gonerrhea is the second most communicable disease in the US. The bacterium, Neisseria gonerrhoeae, is already resistant to penicillin, tetracycline, sulfanilamides, and fluorquinolones. SO this Valentine's Day, don't become a victim.  Be smart and protect yourself.
Don't Let Gonerrhea Ruin Your Life

Enjoy your Valentine's Day!
Original Papers:
E. O'Brien, P. C. Ellsworth. Saving the Last for Best: A Positivity Bias for End ExperiencesPsychological Science, 2012; 23 (2)

Gail A. Bolan, P. Frederick Sparling, Judith N. Wasserheit.The Emerging Threat of Untreatable Gonococcal InfectionNew England Journal of Medicine, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Getting close to Real Life Skele-Gro? Harry Potter was onto something...

Fans of the Harry Potter books know that in the second book, The Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter loses his bones when his bumbling professor tries to repair his fracture on the Quidditch field. The school nurse had to use the magic potion, Skele-grow to regrow his bones. This scenario would be great in real life, as bones from severe breaks could be repaired effortlessly.

Skele-gro is a great fiction solution, however, scientists have now developed a "fracture putty" that allows bones to repair themselves faster. A study conducted by Steve Stice through the University of Georgia is aiming at studying the regenerative capacity of large animals (Discovery Uses 'Fracture Putty' to Repair Broken Bone in Days). A major challenge of healing large bone fracture is the ability to both stabilize the defects and induce high levels of proliferation to replace the damaged tissue. Stice's previous study helped answer this challenge by formulating mesenchymal stem cell that were able to survive in the bone environment long enough to initiate proliferation.

To make the "fracture putty", the team used adult stem cells to produce a protein involved in bone regeneration, which was then placed in a gel-like substance. The putty was subsequently injected into rat hind leg fractures. Two weeks later, the rats were observed running and standing on their hind legs (with all the damage healed)! The putty is being tested in pigs and sheep as well. The next steps would be testing it in larger animal models. In terms of human applications, this putty would be very useful in battlefield situations, where a lot of amputations occur because a fracture is too complex or will take a long time to heal.

Ever thought Skele-gro was a stretch? Perhaps, but now it's been replaced with the realities of "fracture putty!" How maddening!