Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Empty-headed health advice from celebs

The expertise of actors lies in speaking words written by others. When they have to come up with some words of their own they are lost

From Madonna's quest to "neutralise radiation" to Tom Cruise's dismissals of psychiatry, celebrities are seldom shy about expressing their views on health and science - even when they appear not to know what they are talking about. A roll call of public figures such as Cruise and Delia Smith have offered bogus advice or "quackery" this year, according to scientists and doctors. The charity Sense About Science is concerned that celebrities mislead the public when they endorse theories, diets or health products while misrepresenting the science involved.

Some - such as Oprah Winfrey and Kate Moss - espouse "detox" regimes, while others, such as Sharon and Kelly Osbourne, believe (mistakenly) that the Pill can cause cancer. Nor are politicians exempt from lending credence to health myths. The US President-elect is among several American public figures who continue to suggest that the MMR vaccination is a potential cause of autism, despite an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Smith's suggestion that obesity is caused by sugar addiction is another of the assertions under scrutiny. In March, the cookery writer and broadcaster told The Times: "That's what causes obesity. It's addiction. You need to have six weeks without sugar or sweetener . . . After six weeks, everything will taste sweet . . . because you will have got your palate back to what nature created. We could cure the nation if we cut down sugar addiction." Lisa Miles, of the British Nutrition Foundation, counters: "Delia, you'll never get rid of sugar from the diet, nor would you want to, as you consume sugars naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, which provide us with important nutrients . . . the causes of obesity are much more complex."

Demi Moore, the actress, surprises the experts with her use of "highly trained medical leeches" to "detoxify" her blood.

Kate Moss, the model, is reported to be on a strict "detox" diet of fruit and vegetables at a health spa in Thailand. But nutritionists note that such regimes exclude important food groups such as protein.

Moss's friend Stella McCartney, the designer, was criticised last year for saying that a chemical found in skin creams was also found in antifreeze. Gary Moss, a pharmacologist, said that the chemical, propylene glycol, was versatile and its use in cosmetics was not "scary", as claimed.

Both Mr Obama and his rival for the presidency, John McCain, responded to stories about vaccines by highlighting the rise in diagnoses in children of autism. Mr Obama told a campaign rally in April: "We've seen a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." In February Mr McCain had remarked on the rise in autism cases, saying that there was "strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines".

The suggestion that the MMR jab is linked to the developmental disorder dates back to a study of 12 children published in The Lancet in 1997. The research, led by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital, has since been discredited. Yet fears about the vaccine - for measles, mumps and rubella - have resulted in many parents refusing to have their children inoculated, and there has been a resurgence of measles. Dr Wakefield and colleagues have been appearing before the General Medical Council on charges of serious professional misconduct, relating to their original study, which they deny. Studies in several countries involving millions of children have shown no correlation between MMR and autism rates.

Michael Fitzpatrick, author of MMR: What Parents Need to Know, said that Mr Obama and Mr McCain were correct in noting a rise in cases of autism. "However, authoritative studies confirm that the apparent rise is attributable to increased public and professional awareness of the condition and to widening definitions of autistic spectrum disorders," he said. "Though the causes of autism remain obscure, exhaustive researches have failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives in it."

The Sense About Science initiative is an update of a leaflet encouraging celebrities to avoid making claims until they have checked the facts. While there has been "considerable improvement" in the way British celebrities approach medicine, the charity says its files are still too full of pseudo-scientific claims. "We don't expect people to know everything about science; the problem comes when they don't consider checking it or asking questions."


Cancer drug Bortezomib effective in reversing transplant rejection

A new study has revealed that bortezomib, a drug used in the treatment of cancer, can also stop the body from discarding a transplanted organ. The study has been conducted by the University of Cincinnati (U-C) in the U.S. Traditionally bortezomib has been used to cure multiple myeloma, which affects the plasma of white blood cells. The present research has divulged that Bortezomib aims B-lymphocytes, the WBCs that manufacture antibodies, and thwarts the immune system's antibodies from attacking transplanted organs.

Lead author of the study and the chief of transplant surgery at the University of Cincinnati, Dr Steve Woodle, said, "We found a body of literature demonstrating that bortezomib works well in suppressing transplant rejection in the laboratory. Moreover, it worked well in models of auto-immune disease." He opined that plasma cells and the antibodies produced by them played a far bigger role in rejection than was previously thought. He further added that little progress was made in the development of therapies that aimed to target these cells.

The study was conducted on six patients whose immune systems had rejected the transplanted kidneys and were not responding to the conventional anti-rejection cures. All the six patients responded well to bortezomib. Not only did the organ function improve when bortezomib was administered, the recurring occurrence of rejection was also seen missing for a good five months after the treatment.

Steve Woodle added, "This has significant implications for transplantation and auto immune disease." His team is currently working on four more clinical trials to enhance learnings from the first round of findings. The icing on the cake is that the side effects of bortezomib were both predictable and controllable. Moreover the toxicity levels were handy and lesser than other allied anti-cancerdefine agents.

A contented Jason Everly, an oncology pharmacist at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of the study, said, "We are pleased to see its toxicities are similar in transplant recipients suffering from treatment-resistant mixed organ rejection. We hope it will be a viable therapeutic treatment option in this patient group." The study features in the latest edition of the journal Transplantation


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A new twist on the free-radical craze

Trying to quash free radicals with vitamins turned out to be more counter-productive than anything else so I think the whole theory is flawed. This application of it should therefore fail

In a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks it down. He smiles. It's my turn. I put a spoonful of the liquid in my mouth and swallow. It tastes slightly sweet, which is a surprise. I was expecting it to be exactly like water since that, in fact, is what it is - heavy water to be precise, chemical formula D2O. The D stands for deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with an atomic mass of 2 instead of 1. Deuterium is what puts the heavy in heavy water. An ice cube made out of it would sink in normal water.

My sip of heavy water is the culmination of a long journey trying to get to the bottom of a remarkable claim that Shchepinov first made around 18 months ago. He believes he has discovered an elixir of youth, a way to drink (or more likely eat) your way to a longer life. You may think that makes Shchepinov sound like a snake-oil salesman. I thought so too, but the more I found out about his idea, the more it began to make sense.

The story began two years ago, while Shchepinov was working at a biotechology company in Oxford, UK, and using his spare time to read up on the latest ideas about what causes us to age. The most widely accepted idea is the free-radical theory. This holds that our slide into decrepitude is the result of irreversible damage to the biomolecules that make up our bodies. The main agents of this destruction are oxygen free radicals, aggressive chemical compounds that are an unavoidable by-product of metabolism.

The reason oxygen radicals are so dangerous is that they have a voracious appetite for electrons, which they rip out of anything they can lay their hands on - water, proteins, fats, DNA - leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. This damage gradually builds up over a lifetime and eventually leads the body's basic biochemical processes to fail.

One of the worst types of damage is something called protein carbonylation, in which an oxygen radical attacks vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds in a protein (see diagram). This has been linked to many of the worst diseases of old age, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, chronic renal failure and diabetes (The EMBO Journal, vol 24, p 1311). Other important targets of free-radical attack are DNA and the fatty acids in cell membranes. The human body produces legions of antioxidants, including vitamins and enzymes, that quench free radicals before they can do any harm. But over a lifetime these defence systems eventually fall victim to oxidative attack too, leading to an inevitable decline. Many anti-ageing medications are based on supplementing the body's own defences with antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, though there is scant evidence that this does any good (New Scientist, 5 August 2006, p 40).

Shchepinov realised there was another way to defeat free radicals. While he was familiarising himself with research on ageing, his day job involved a well-established - if slightly obscure - bit of chemistry called the isotope effect. On Christmas day 2006, it dawned on him that putting the two together could lead to a new way of postponing the ravages of time. The basic concept of the isotope effect is that the presence of heavy isotopes in a molecule can slow down its chemical reactions. This is because heavy isotopes form stronger covalent bonds than their lighter counterparts; for example, a carbon-deuterium bond is stronger than a carbon-hydrogen bond. While the effect applies to all heavy isotopes, including carbon-13, nitrogen-15 and oxygen-18 (see chart), it is most marked with deuterium as it is proportionally so much heavier than hydrogen. Deuterated bonds can be up to 80 times stronger than those containing hydrogen.

All of this is conventional chemistry: the isotope effect was discovered back in the 1930s and its mechanism explained in the 1940s. The effect has a long pedigree as a research tool in basic chemistry for probing the mechanisms of complex reactions.

Shchepinov, however, is the first researcher to link the effect with ageing. It dawned on him that if ageing is caused by free radicals trashing covalent bonds, and if those same bonds can be strengthened using the isotope effect, why not use it to make vulnerable biomolecules more resistant to attack? All you would have to do is judiciously place deuterium or carbon-13 in the bonds that are most vulnerable to attack, and chemistry should take care of the rest.

In early 2007 Shchepinov wrote up his idea and submitted it to a journal called Rejuvenation Research. Unbeknown to him, the journal's editor is controversial gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation in Lorton, Virginia, who is well known for supporting ideas other gerontologists consider outlandish. De Grey sent the paper out for review and eventually accepted it (Rejuvenation Research, vol 10, p 47).

In the paper, Shchepinov points out that there is masses of existing science backing up his ideas. Dozens of experiments have proved that proteins, fatty acids and DNA can be helped to resist oxidative damage using the isotope effect. Shchepinov's paper brought the idea to a wider audience, including successful biotechnology entrepreneurs Charles Cantor and Robert Molinari. Impressed, they teamed up with Shchepinov to set up a company called Retrotope, with de Grey as a scientific advisor.

It was around this time that I first got in touch with Shchepinov. I'd never heard of the isotope effect, and de Grey's involvement made me cautious. But there was something in the idea that intrigued me, and I kept on coming back to it. There were obvious objections to the idea. For one, how do you get the isotopes to exactly the sites where you want them? After all, the human body contains trillions upon trillions of chemical bonds, but relatively few are vulnerable to free-radical damage. And what about safety - swallowing mouthfuls of heavy isotopes surely can't be good for you, can it? That, of course, is how I ended up sharing a teaspoon of heavy water with Shchepinov.

Neither, it turns out, is a big problem. Some heavy isotopes are radioactive so are obviously ruled out on safety grounds - hydrogen-3 (tritium) and carbon-14, for example. Others, notably deuterium and carbon-13, are just as stable as hydrogen and carbon-12. Both occur in small amounts in nature and are a natural component of some biomolecules in our bodies (see "Heavy babies"). Deuterium and carbon-13 also appear to be essentially non-toxic. Baby mice weaned on a highly enriched carbon-13 diet are completely normal, even when 60 per cent of the carbon atoms in their body are carbon-13. Deuterium also has a clean bill of health as long as you don't go overboard. Decades of experiments in which animals were fed heavy water suggest that up to a fifth of the water in your body can be replaced with heavy water with no ill effects.

Similar experiments have been done on humans, albeit with lower levels of deuterium. One recent experiment kept humans on a low-level heavy-water diet for 10 weeks, during which their heavy-water levels were raised to around 2.5 per cent of body water, with no adverse effects (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, vol 1760, p 730). The researchers also found that some deuterium became incorporated into proteins.

Heavy water, however, isn't completely safe. In mammals, toxic effects start to kick in around the 20 per cent mark, and at 35 per cent it is lethal. This is largely down to the isotope effect itself: any protein in your body has the potential to take up deuterium atoms from heavy water, and eventually this radically alters your entire biochemistry. You'd have to drink a vast amount to suffer any ill effects - my 5 millilitres did me no harm whatsoever - but even so, Retrotope is not advocating heavy water as an elixir of youth.

Instead, it wants to package up heavy isotopes in what Shchepinov calls "iFood". This method has huge advantages, not least because it allows the heavy isotopes to be targeted to the most vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds. Of the 20 amino acids used by humans, 10 cannot be made by the body and must be present in the diet. That means if you supplement your diet with essential amino acids that have already had their vulnerable bonds strengthened, your body's proteins will have these reinforced amino acids incorporated into them. Some of the building blocks of fats and DNA can also only be acquired via your diet, which means they too can be targeted using the iFood approach.

What's more, this approach ought to be completely safe, says Shchepinov. Deuterium atoms bound to carbon in amino acids are "non-exchangeable" and so don't leak into body water. Another possibility is to produce meat, eggs or milk enriched with deuterium or carbon-13 by feeding deuterated water or isotope-enriched amino acids to farm animals. For now, though, iFood remains on the drawing board as nobody manufactures the right compounds. To solve that problem, Retrotope has signed up the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry in Moscow, Russia and Minsk State University in Belarus to make customised amino acids and fatty acids. "There are a lot of good isotope chemists in Russia," says Cantor.

Another hurdle Retrotope will have to overcome is cost. At current prices, a litre of heavy water will set you back $300. "Isotopes are expensive," says Shchepinov. "But there's no need for them to be. Methods are there to extract them, but nobody wants them." Unless demand rises, there is no incentive to produce them in bulk, and this keeps the price high.

These obstacles haven't stopped Retrotope launching a research programme to test Shchepinov's big idea. A team at the Institute for the Biology of Ageing in Moscow recently fed various amounts of heavy water to fruit flies to see if it had any effect on longevity. Though large amounts were deadly, smaller quantities increased lifespans by up to 30 per cent. It's a promising start, but it's too early to say whether the human lifespan can also be extended in this way, or how much deuterium-enriched food you would have to eat to get a beneficial effect. "This is preliminary and needs to be reproduced under a variety of conditions," says Shchepinov. "It's possible that the flies don't like the diet, and what we're seeing is the effects of caloric restriction [the only proven strategy for extending lifespan in experimental animals]. We need to do a lot more experiments. But still..."

Retrotope has signed up some heavyweight gerontologists to join de Grey as scientific advisors, including Jan Vijg of the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine in New York and Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco. Kenyon recently started work on Retrotope's second round of experiments, giving a deuterium-enriched diet to nematode worms. "It's a beautiful idea," says Vijg. "It gives us a serious chance of retarding ageing." He cautions, however, that Shchepinov's ideas hinge on free radicals being at the root of ageing. While this is still the leading theory in the field, many researchers argue that free-radical damage alone cannot account for all the biological changes that happen as we get old (Nature, vol 451, p 644).


Baby born deaf and blind after mother took Botox-like drug

How do they know that the Botox did it? They don't. It's just speculation. And since the stuff is widely used but no other similar cases have been reported, this is just a do-gooder scare

An anti-wrinkle treatment virtually identical to the booming Botox has been linked to serious birth defects. An Australian baby was born deaf and blind in November 2005 after the mother was given facial cosmetic injections of the drug Dysport in the first week of pregnancy. Documents from the Federal Health and Ageing Department, released under Freedom of Information, have revealed the "serious and unexpected pregnancy outcome".

Dysport and Botox are both botulinum type A toxin drugs rapidly growing in popularity as muscle-relaxant cosmetic treatments. The birth defect link was among 46 different adverse reactions to botulinum type A toxin reported to the Therapeutic Goods Administration since July 1, 1994. The most common are temporary facial paralysis, visual disturbances, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty swallowing, hallucinations and anxiety. The European Medicines Agency has recorded more than 600 negative effects from the use of drugs made from botulinum type A toxin, including 28 deaths. And in the US, the Food and Drug Administration has warned of side-effects including death, but stopped short of a ban.

A 2006 report on the Australian birth defect case, written by the medical services manager for Dysport manufacturer Ipsen, admits a "possible" link with the drug's use. "A female subject was injected with Dysport at about one week of gestation. The infant was born deaf and blind," the report states. Another report, however, claimed there was no such link.

A Health and Ageing Department spokeswoman said she was unaware if there were any further findings. "It absolutely would have been investigated, but it does not appear it warranted further action," she said.

Both Botox and Dysport are schedule three drugs that can only be used on prescription. Consumer information for both recommends against treatment when pregnant. An Ipsen spokesman said Dysport, unlike Botox, was more commonly used for purposes other than smoothing treatments, such as by neurologists for movement disorders. "When the drug is administered according to specifications, it's one of the safest drugs out there," he said.

A spokeswoman for Australian Botox distributor Allergan said its safety had been established over 40 years. "More than 2000 clinical studies and review articles have been published on the effectiveness and safety of Botox," she said. Cosmetic Physicians of Australia spokeswoman Dr Mary Dingley said she administered up to 10 treatments a day using either Botox or Dysport without serious reactions. She said most adverse reactions she experienced were trauma around the injection site, while in other cases the problems related to the drug affecting nearby muscles


Monday, December 29, 2008

List Of Holiday "Health Myths" Comes Up Short. Here's A Better One

The holiday season is as saturated with lists as it is with candy canes and mistletoe. Gift wish lists, top holiday songs, best seasonal dessert recipes. Today, health reporters across the country have been buzzing with yet another festive rundown: "5 Holiday Health Myths." And as much as we hate to be a holiday humbug, this latest list just doesn't pass muster. The Washington Post reports on the debunked myths, including:

Suicide rates are higher during the holidays. Poinsettias are toxic if eaten. Hangovers are curable. Sugar makes children hyperactive. You lose most of your body heat through your head. Eating at night makes you fat. "We really don't know why some myths become so embedded," said one of the article's co-authors, Dr. Rachel Vreeman, an assistant professor of pediatrics. "Sometimes you hear these myths from people you consider to be experts," suggested Vreeman's co-author, Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research.

True, we do hear a lot of health myths from pseudo-experts. But it's not so surprising that midnight snacks aren't to blame for the "obesity epidemic," nor are we shocked that children aren't getting their energy from candy or sugary drinks. The rest of the list is equally un-earth shattering. Do you care where your body heat escapes as long as you manage to stay warm? Is anyone you know really craving a poinsettia salad?

We didn't think so. So we put our heads together and whipped up a new one for you. In the spirit of "making a list and checking it twice," here's a list of holiday health myths you might actually find useful this holiday season:

Myth #1: Your Christmas beef tenderloin is causing global warming.

PETA may never admit it, but it turns out that eating meat isn't so eco-unfriendly after all-at least if it's American meat. Back in October, we took a closer look at that 2006 United Nations report everyone's talking about, Livestock's Long Shadow, and found that greenhouse gas sources directly related to livestock production in the U.S. only account for 2.58 percent-not 18 percent-of the total.

Myth #2: Watch out! Those potato latkes are full of acrylamide!

Don't believe the hype: According to the British Journal of Cancer, the link between acrylamide (a substance that forms when potatoes are fried) and cancer is actually an inverse trend. You could eat your weight in latkes or French fries every week for the rest of your life without ever incurring any real danger.

Myth #3: Grandma's tuna casserole will give you mercury poisoning.

Passing on the ocean-caught fish this month-or any other month-will probably cause more damage than eating the tiny traces of naturally occurring toxins that are in all fish. Just ask the Food and Drug Administration.

Myth #4: Lay off the cheese balls and pecan pie unless you want to look like a fat Santa.

As the American Dietetic Association has said, food is not the enemy. Rather than fixate on one food or the other, try and focus on the big picture: your total diet and exercise regimen. Enjoy your holiday feast. Just walk it off.

Myth #5: Your holiday turkey is laced with harmful antibiotics.

Despite the claims of environmental and animal-rights activists, medicines given to livestock are required to improve the health of farm animals, and pose no health risk to meat-eaters. Banning them would backfire, harming the health of people like you.


Final Christmas for Artisan Toymakers? New Safety Rules Threaten Mom-and-Pop Handicrafters and Retailers

Worries over lead paint in mass-market toys made the holidays a little brighter for handcrafted toy makers last year, but now the federal government's response to the scare has some workshops fearful that this Christmas might be their last. Without changes to strict new safety rules, they say, mom-and-pop toy makers and retailers could be forced to conduct testing and labeling they can't afford, even if they use materials as benign as unfinished wood, organic cotton and beeswax, the AP reports.

"It's ironic that the companies who never violated the public trust, who have already operated with integrity, are the ones being threatened," Julia Chen, owner of The Playstore in Palo Alto, which specializes in wooden and organic playthings, told the AP. A spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said the agency is working to set up some exemptions, reports AP writer Marcus Wohlsen.

Lead paint spurred the recall of 45 million toys last year, mostly made in China for larger manufacturers. Parents flocked to stores like The Playstore in the recall's aftermath searching for safer alternatives. Lawmakers also responded. In August, President Bush imposed the world's strictest lead ban in products for children 12 or younger by signing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Small toy makers strongly back the restrictions in the bill, which they say reflect voluntary standards they have long observed to keep harmful substances out of toys. But they never thought their products would also be considered a threat.

Under the law, all children's products must be tested for lead and other harmful substances. Toy makers are required to pay a third-party lab for the testing and to put tracking labels on all toys to show when and where they were made. Those requirements make sense for a multinational toy manufacturer churning out thousands of plastic toys on an overseas assembly line, Dan Marshall, co-owner of Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care in St. Paul, Minn., told the AP. But a business that makes, for example, a few hundred handcrafted wooden baby rattles each year cannot afford to pay up to $4,000 per product for testing, a price some toy makers have been quoted, he said.

Marshall and nearly 100 other toy stores and makers have formed the Handmade Toy Alliance to ask Congress and the federal agency that enforces the law to exempt small toy companies or those that make toys entirely within the U.S. from testing and labeling rules. Failing that, they want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to preemptively declare unfinished wood, wool and cotton and food-grade wood finishes such as beeswax, mineral oil and walnut oil to be lead-free.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., lead sponsor of the legislation, says toy makers should not worry. Rush points out that the law already exempts products and materials that do not threaten public safety or health. "This exemption should be sufficient to affect most companies," Rush told the AP. Determining what materials fall under that exemption falls to the safety commission, however, which has yet to issue specific guidelines. With a Feb. 10 deadline for complying with the law, small toy makers say they have no choice but to act as if its rules apply to them or risk facing fines of $100,000 per violation.

"The agency is diligently working on providing rules that would define some exclusions and some exemptions," Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the product safety commission, told the AP.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Fish Story You'll Only Find On Broadway

For those of you who haven't been following "Sushigate," let's review: News broke last week that television star Jeremy Piven (of "Entourage" fame) had pulled out of his role in the Broadway production of David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." According to Piven and celebrity doctor/diet pill enthusiast Carlon Colker, a nasty case of mercury poisoning rendered the actor " paralytic" and unable to perform until February or March (when, conveniently, Piven will begin filming the new season of his TV show). Rumors are now swirling around the New York theatre scene that Piven was complaining about being " bored out of his mind" on Broadway, and that he'd been shopping around for a replacement actor. Sound fishy? You bet it does.

Given his reputation as an avid sushi fan, Piven's creative excuse may seem plausible -- if you don't know the facts about mercury and other naturally occurring toxins. But David Mamet is in the know. When reached for comment by Variety last week, the legendary playwright said:
"I talked to Jeremy on the phone, and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."

Mamet was definitely on to something: If Piven's story were true, he would go down in American history as the first documented sufferer of sushi-induced mercury poisoning. Ever.

But will he? That depends: Exactly, how big a sushi fan is Jeremy Piven? As readers of the Philadelphia Daily News, Washington Post, and Chicago-Sun Times are learning today, Piven would have to eat 108 pieces of tuna sushi roll every week, for his entire lifetime, to introduce any new health risks from the traces of mercury that have always been in ocean fish.

And Piven's reckless claims are playing games with public health. Our latest report on mercury and seafood, "Tuna Meltdown," showed that seafood scare stories come at a shocking price to the health of America's poorest children. Anyone steering Americans away from the fish counter, whether it's an attention-starved actor or the usual gaggle of green group activists, is depriving them of proven health benefits from omega-3 fatty acids in fish.

As we've been telling the media, someone should send Piven the memo if he hasn't gotten it already: The next time he's bored at a job, he ought to try renegotiating his contract instead of making outlandish health claims. Like other (less whiny) actors do all the time.

Source (See the original for links etc.)

The pendulum swings again: Single pint of beer a day ‘poses liver and bowel cancer risk’

Drinking only one pint of beer a day increases the risk of liver and bowel cancer by a fifth, a health expert warned yesterday. A large glass of wine or a couple of spirits can have the same damaging effect, she said.

Rachel Thompson, science programme manager for the World Cancer Research Fund, warned that just two units of alcohol a day increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent and that of liver cancer by a fifth. More than 36,500 people have bowel cancer diagnosed every year and about 16,000 die from it. Liver cancer claims the lives of more than 3,000 people annually.


The causal link asserted above is undoubtedly mere epidemiological speculation but even if it is true, what is the effect on lifespan? Benefits to the heart may well cancel out other risks

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Colombo the Asbestos Sleuth

A judge exposes more phony claims

Good legal news for a change: The courts keep making progress against phony asbestos lawsuits, this time in Michigan, where Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert Colombo, Jr., has risen to the challenge of a case we wrote about in November.

Judge Colombo has been overseeing asbestos cases in which defendants were trying to disqualify Michael Kelly, a physician who had diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease on dubious grounds. The judge made clear in court that he didn't appreciate the national attention of our editorial, to put it mildly. But in the end he did the right thing by granting a hearing into Dr. Kelly's diagnoses. Tellingly, the plaintiff attorneys immediately withdrew all but one of their suits.

The judge plowed ahead anyway, helping to expose another asbestos scam. Defendants presented evidence that Dr. Kelly was neither a radiologist nor a pulmonologist and had failed the test that certifies doctors to read X-rays for lung disease. They also showed that the overwhelming majority of hospital radiologists who had reviewed Dr. Kelly's patients found no evidence of disease. An outside panel of radiologists who looked at Dr. Kelly's work found abnormalities in only 6 of 68 patients; Dr. Kelly had found abnormalities in 60 of those 68.

More than 90% of the lung function tests Dr. Kelly performed failed to meet basic standards. The defendants also showed that Dr. Kelly submitted nearly identical reports for every patient he saw, yet he failed to note that some of his patients also had heart disease or renal failure. Asbestos attorneys apparently don't pay for doctors to observe the Hippocratic Oath.

In his ruling, Judge Colombo laid out the facts and found that "the only conclusion in the face of such overwhelming medical evidence is that the opinions of Dr. Kelly are not reliable." He then disqualified him from the case. The effects will be dramatic -- and salutary to the cause of justice. According to Michigan records, Dr. Kelly has been responsible for reporting more than 7,300 cases of asbestos disease. It is unclear how many of those cases have already been adjudicated, but what is clear is that no new suits bearing the doctor's name will see the legal light of day. Some 95% of Michigan asbestos cases are filed in Wayne County and come to Judge Colombo.

The plaintiffs firm -- Greenberg, Persky and White -- has already requested a delay in another 180 cases that were due to be heard in January and May -- and which presumably also relied on Dr. Kelly. Judge Colombo denied that request, which means the plaintiffs will either have to dismiss or find some other doctor to replicate Dr. Kelly's miraculously consistent diagnoses.

Asbestos tort litigation is one of the great rackets of the age, with bogus claims tying up courts in ways that deny justice to the genuinely sick. Too many judges have tried to clear their dockets by running an assembly line that failed to look at the actual evidence, letting plaintiffs and their pliant doctors pass through phony claims. Congratulations to Judge Colombo for cleaning up his own court. If more judges did the same, the asbestos shakedown would end and our legal system would have a better reputation.


Genetic screening ends fears of breast cancer for British couple

A baby genetically screened to be breast cancer free is due to be born within days. In what is believed to be the first publicised case in the world, a British couple underwent pre-implantation genetic testing to free their children from the disease. At the same time, IVF Australia has announced it will start the genetic testing for the aggressive breast cancer gene BRACA 1 next year.

Testing for the breast cancer gene has been available in Australia for about five years. Very few IVF clinics offer it due to the ethical dilemma involved. Pre-implantation genetic testing is used to screen for hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But screening for breast cancer is considered controversial by pro-life groups because there is a chance not all embryos will develop the gene mutation and could have led a healthy life.

The British couple, who do not wish to be identified, are one of two in the UK who have publicly decided to undergo the test after their families had been afflicted with breast cancer. Without screening, any daughter of the couples would have an 80 per cent chance of developing the fast-spreading form of breast cancer. "I thought this was something I had to try because if we had a daughter with this gene, and she was ill, I couldn't look her in the face and say I didn't try," the 27-year-old expectant mum said.

Men can be carriers of the rogue gene. Had the couple conceived naturally, any child would have a 50 per cent chance of also carrying the gene. "We had been through his sister being ill, so it was something we had seen first hand," the woman said.

Another couple, known as Matthew and Helen, have also undergone the screening to try to eradicate the hereditary breast cancer gene. "I've lived much of my life with cancer and death, and fear that I might have to face it and might pass on the risk to my children," Helen said. "This gives us the chance to make sure our daughters won't have the same experience."

Genetic testing involves using IVF to create a selection of embyros. Scientists then select the ones without the rogue gene and implant them in the woman. Several clinics, including Sydney IVF, offer screening for BRACA 1 and 2 genes. "What is significant about this case is that normally genetic testing is done for things that affect the baby, not adult diseases," said Peter Illingworth, IVF Australia's medical director.

Breast cancer survivor Ayda Soydash, 29, may never be able to have children after her treatment, using Herceptin, brought on early menopause. But yesterday Miss Soydash said she supported genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer. "Definitely, definitely it is something I would do," she said.


Friday, December 26, 2008

Big Beverage Makers Win Approval on Natural Sweetener

I wonder how long it will take for the food freaks to invent a problem with this stuff? That sugar is a completely natural substance must not be mentioned, of course

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo said this week that they received U.S. regulatory clearance for natural, calorie-free sweeteners derived from the stevia plant and planned to launch new soft drinks in the coming weeks. Both beverage makers have long searched for a natural alternative to chemical sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet'N Low and Splenda to help reinvigorate U.S. soft drink sales, which have slipped as consumers opt for other drinks that are viewed as healthier, Reuters reports.

Coke, the world's largest soft-drink maker said the sweetener it co-developed with Cargill, known as Truvia, will make its U.S. debut this month in two Odwalla juice drinks and a version of its Sprite soft drink. The drinks have 50 calories per serving, which is 8.5 ounces for Sprite and 8 ounces for the juices. Pepsi, the No. 2 maker of soft drinks, said it will launch zero-calorie versions of its SoBe Lifewater and "Trop 50," a light orange juice product with 50 percent less sugar and calories than regular Tropicana orange juice, reports Reuters writer Martinne Geller.

Both drinks will feature PureVia, the sweetener Pepsi developed with Merisant. The new SoBe Lifewater will be on shelves as early as next week, with full distribution by mid-January. Trop 50 will make its retail debut in March. Truvia and PureVia are made from the leaves of the stevia, a shrub native to South America.

Stevia was not approved as a food additive by U.S. regulators, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued letters to the companies this week saying it had no objections to their sweeteners, which are derived from the plant.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of industry trade publication Beverage Digest, said that the impact of the sweetener depends on consumers. "It's all about taste," Sicher told Reuters. "If this sweetener helps produce lower-calorie beverages that taste good, it would be a big deal for the industry. If the beverages don't taste good, then it will not be a major moment."


New Research Shows Why Every Week of Pregnancy Counts

This time of year, some hospitals see a small uptick in baby deliveries thanks to families eager to fit the blessed event in around holiday plans or in time to claim a tax deduction. Conventional wisdom has long held that inducing labor or having a Caesarean section a bit early posed little risk, since after 34 weeks gestation, all the baby has to do was grow. But new research shows that those last weeks of pregnancy are more important than once thought for brain, lung and liver development. And there may be lasting consequences for babies born at 34 to 36 weeks, now called "late preterm."

A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in October calculated that for each week a baby stayed in the womb between 32 and 39 weeks, there is a 23% decrease in problems such as respiratory distress, jaundice, seizures, temperature instability and brain hemorrhages. A study of nearly 15,000 children in the Journal of Pediatrics in July found that those born between 32 and 36 weeks had lower reading and math scores in first grade than babies who went to full term. New research also suggests that late preterm infants are at higher risk for mild cognitive and behavioral problems and may have lower I.Q.s than those who go full term. What's more, experts warn that a fetus's estimated age may be off by as much as two weeks either way, meaning that a baby thought to be 36 weeks along might be only 34.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes are now urging obstetricians not to deliver babies before 39 weeks unless there is a medical reason to do so. "It's very important for people to realize that every week counts," says Lucky E. Jain, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

It's unclear how many deliveries are performed early for nonmedical reasons. Preterm births (before 37 weeks) have risen 31% in the U.S. since 1981 -- to one in every eight births. The most serious problems are seen in the tiniest babies. But nearly 75% of preterm babies are born between 34 and 36 weeks, and much of the increase has come in C-sections, which now account for a third of all U.S. births. An additional one-fifth of all births are via induced labor, up 125% since 1989. Many of those elective deliveries are done for medical reasons such as fetal distress or pre-eclampsia, a sudden spike in the mother's blood pressure. Those that aren't can be hard to distinguish. "Obstetricians know the rules and they are very creative about some of their indications -- like 'impending pre-eclampsia,'" says Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes.

Why do doctors agree to deliver a baby early when there's no medical reason? Some cite pressure from parents. "'I'm tired of being pregnant. My fingers are swollen. My mother-in-law is coming' -- we hear that all the time," says Laura E. Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But there are 25 other patients waiting, and saying 'no' can take 45 minutes, so sometimes we cave." There's also a perception that delivering early by c-section is safer for the baby, even though it means major surgery for the mom. "The idea is that somehow, if you're in complete control of the delivery, then only good things will happen. But that's categorically wrong. The baby and the uterus know best," says F. Sessions Cole, director of newborn medicine at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

He explains that a complex series of events occurs in late pregnancy to prepare the baby to survive outside the womb: The fetus acquires fat needed to maintain body temperature; the liver matures enough to eliminate a toxin called bilirubin from the body; and the lungs get ready to exchange oxygen as soon as the umbilical cord is clamped. Disrupting any of those steps can result in brain damage and other problems. In addition, the squeezing of the uterus during labor stimulates the baby and the placenta to make steroid hormones that help this last phase of lung maturation -- and that's missed if the mother never goes into labor.

"We don't have a magic ball to predict which babies might have problems," says Dr. Cole. "But we can say that the more before 39 weeks a baby is delivered, the more likely that one or more complications will occur."

In cases where there are medical reasons to deliver a baby early, lung maturation can be determined with amniocentesis -- using a long needle to withdraw fluid from inside the uterus. But that can cause infection, bleeding or a leak or fetal distress, which could require an emergency c-section. Trying to determine maturity by the size of the fetus can also be problematic. Babies of mothers with gestational diabetes are often very large for their age, but even less developed for their age than normal-size babies.

Growing beyond 42 weeks can also pose problems, since the placenta deteriorates and can't sustain the growing baby.

Making families aware of the risks of delivering early makes a big difference. In Utah, where 27% of elective deliveries in 1999 took place before the 39th week, a major awareness campaign has reduced that to less than 5%. At two St. Louis hospitals that send premature babies to Dr. Cole's neonatal intensive-care unit, obstetricians now ask couples who want to schedule a delivery before 39 weeks to sign a consent form acknowledging the risks. At that point, many wait for nature to take its course, says Dr. Cole.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Smart kids are more likely to be heavy drinkers

There's a link between a high IQ and developing alcohol problems. Being highly intelligent in a world built around average people can be frustrating and alcohol is one solvent for frustration

The Colony Club in Soho has been a watering hole for hard-drinking creative types since it was founded by Muriel Belcher in the late 1940s. It is a reasonable bet that her confidants - Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard, Michael Andrews, Eduardo Paolozzi and other regulars from the art and entertainment world - would have had high IQs. Some members may have been nightmare clients for their bank managers, exasperating husbands, wives or lovers, but no one would doubt their talents, originality and intellectual ability. Research has now shown a link between high childhood IQ and an adult enthusiasm for alcohol that leads in some cases to problem drinking.

Parents may be aware that the easiest children to have around the house, and those who are also the most likely to have a predictable, comfortable lifestyle when adults, are those with a slightly aboveaverage intelligence, neither too clever, nor stupid. Most parents would be proud to be told by a teacher that their child has a higher IQ than his or her peers. It would not occur to anybody that there might be an association between that high IQ at the age of 10 and an enthusiasm for the drinking culture, leading occasionally to a problematic excessive alcohol intake.

This association is even stronger among women than among men. Research by Dr G. David Batty and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, published in the American Journal of Public Health, compared the mental ability scores of 8,170 British boys and girls at the age of 10 with their alcohol intake and any alcohol problems when they were 30.

Whereas most of the clever children grew up to drink as most people do, reasonably and moderately, the likelihood of developing a drinking problem if one were unusually bright increased 1.38 times in women and 1.17 times in men. Could this account for the importance of Oxford wine cellars in college life and, possibly, the tendency of intelligent heavy drinkers to start the habit while at university?

As most of us begin to look forward to and prepare for a convivial Christmas, it is as well to review thinking on alcohol. Nobody denies that excessive or binge drinking presents a danger to the drinker and those around them, but modest drinking is still life-preserving rather than life-limiting.

More women than ever are drinking to excess, and it is hard to know who will suffer liver damage and what level of alcohol consumption is liable to cause it. Nor can anyone condone Friday or Saturday night binge drinking. This represents a hazard to a young drinker's liver, even if most get away with it. It is also true that problem drinking by clubbers causes a considerable nuisance in the neighbourhood and contributes to petty crime.

The evidence that alcohol is a possible cause of breast cancer in women is now accepted, as alcohol increases the level of oestrogen and this is known to be carcinogenic. However, women can comfort themselves as they enjoy a glass of wine at Christmas that, statistically, those who drink in moderation are likely to live rather longer than their teetotal contemporaries.

Only 6 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men drink at what even the strict Department of Health considers a hazardous level. For the other 90 per cent-plus of the population, moderate drinkers as well as teetotallers, alcohol doesn't represent a health problem. Moderate drinkers even have a small but significant advantage over the teetotallers in the longevity stakes.

A surprising statistic is that, in the majority of the population, damaging patterns of drinking are falling. However, alcohol-related hospital admissions still show an increase. This may be because more medical conditions are now included under this category, and because more women are now drinking more than 20 years ago.

Although many common forms of heart disease are less likely in moderate drinkers, there is one adverse effect of alcohol on the heart. Up to 10 per cent of patients over 75 suffer from atrial fibrillation, an irregularity of the heart's rhythm. In 45 per cent of the cases in which a patient has suffered the most common form of stroke, it has been preceded by atrial fibrillation. Recent research, reviewed this month in the British Journal of Cardiology, suggests a strong association between atrial fibrillation and alcohol intake.


Blind man demonstrates 'blindsight' phenomenon by navigating obstacle course

A man who completely lost his sight after brain damage has astonished scientists by negotiating an obstacle course without his cane, in a powerful demonstration of an eerie phenomenon known as "blindsight". The man, known only as TN, was blinded by strokes on both sides of his brain which left him unable to see and devoid of any activity in the brain regions that control vision. He uses a stick to detect obstacles, and has to be guided around buildings. However, TN was known to exhibit blindsight, a strange ability some blind people have to detect things that they cannot see. He reacts to the facial expressions of other people, for example, and scans of his brain have confirmed that it registers facial emotions such as joy, anger and fear.

He has now shown evidence of an even more remarkable skill - the ability to navigate without being able to see. In an experiment, scientists arranged a series of boxes and chairs in an obstacle course and asked TN to move through it from one side of the room to the other without using his cane. To their amazement, he completed the course without hitting anything, earning applause from on-lookers.

Professor Beatrice de Gelder, of the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, who led the study, said: "This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans. We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world."

TN's blindsight is likely to be explained by these alternative visual paths in the brain, which allow him to process information received through his eyes, which are still functional. He can then use this information to navigate even though he is unaware that he has the ability to see.

Professor de Gelder said: "It's a part of our vision that's for orienting and doing in the world rather than for understanding. All the time, we are using hidden resources of our brain, doing things we think we are unable to do." The research could have implications for treating patients with brain damage.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Quack medicine making inroads

Below is an excerpt, without links, from a recent Sandy Szwarc article. Sandy is too polite to use the term "quack medicine" but that is what it is. Read the whole article for the full depressing story. I suppose quack medicine could be regarded as a self-administered placebo, though

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new Guidance for the Clinician in Rendering Pediatric Care on using alternative modalities. This professional society supported pediatricians complementing their medical practices and the advice they give with alternative modalities (called CAM, holistic or integrative), incorrectly claiming that CAM use is increasing and more than a third of adults have used alternative modalities.

CAM was described as caring for the whole patient and considering their biological, psychological, family and social needs - all of which has been part of medical assessments and nursing care plans as long as I can remember. The real "distinction between CAM and mainstream medicine," said the AAP guideline, is that mainstream medicine includes practices that have undergone rigorous research. It reported that many alternative modalities have proven effective, lessening "the distinction between CAM and mainstream medicine," and that clinicians have an ethical responsibility to know about evidence-based CAM, and be open and respectful of CAM use.

This is an example of a term no longer meaning what we think it does: `evidence-based' no longer means sound and scientific evidence.

Readers who weren't reading the AAP guideline closely might have come away believing that CAM had been soundly shown to be effective in clinical research. "More than 1400 randomized clinical trials and 47 systematic reviews of pediatric CAM [have been identified]. Formal evaluation has suggested that the quality of RCTs of CAM is as good as that of RCTs of conventional medicine," it said - neglecting to report that the findings of those reviews have been notably negative.

The AAP guidance, published in its journal Pediatrics, presented the Kemper Model of Holistic Care and uncritically reviewed the efficacy and popularity of everything from biofield modalities "intended to affect energy fields," to acupuncture, therapeutic touch ("healing is promoted when the body's energies are in balance"), reiki, spiritual healing, healing massage, supplements, functional foods, magnets, and homeopathy (used by an estimated 3,000 clinicians in the U.S.) for babies and children.

Medscape offered an accompanying continuing medical education course, giving doctors and nurses credit for answering (incorrectly) just two questions - the most popular CAM used in children and how doctors should address the use of CAM in children.

How did we go from treatments that would once have been deemed patent medicines and been treated to careful scientific analyses of effectiveness and safety in medical literature - to these same practices being advocated by a professional medical society using innuendos and ad populum?

This isn't a trivial concern, nor is it just about what is traditionally considered alternative modalities. We've increasingly been seeing unsound medical information being unquestionably accepted by healthcare professionals, and published in peer-reviewed journals, that neglects basic principles of research, fact checking, or statistics - surrounding everything from weight management, preventive health, lifestyle and anti-aging medicine, misuse of risk factors and epidemiology, and food as medicine dietary ideologies. What explains the growing departure of science and the scientific process from medicine? As major academic medical and nursing schools across the country adopt core CAM curriculums, are medical professionals who are trained to believe in alternative modalities losing the ability to recognize sound scientific research and evidence-based medicine?

More here

'Sex chip' will have us wired, Oxford University researcher says

Forget Viagra: scientists are working on an electronic "sex chip" that will be able to stimulate pleasure centres in the brain, The Australian reports. The prospect of the chip is emerging from progress in deep brain stimulation, in which tiny shocks from implanted electrodes are given to the brain. It has already been used to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

In recent months, scientists have been focusing on an area of the brain just behind the eyes known as the orbitofrontal cortex. This is associated with feelings of pleasure derived from eating and sex. A research survey conducted by Morten Kringelbach, senior fellow at Oxford University's department of psychiatry, and reported in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal, found the orbitofrontal cortex could be a "new stimulation target" to help people suffering from anhedonia, an inability to experience pleasure from such activities. Stimulating this area can produce pleasure as intense as "devouring a delicious pastry", he said.

His colleague Tipu Aziz, a professor of neurosurgery at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, predicted a significant breakthrough in the science behind a "sex chip" within 10 years. "There is evidence that this chip will work," Dr Aziz said. "A few years ago, a scientist implanted such a device into the brain of a woman with a low sex drive and turned her into a very sexually active woman. She didn't like the sudden change, so the wiring in her head was removed."

The wiring remains a hurdle: Dr Aziz says current technology, which requires surgery to connect a wire from a heart pacemaker into the brain, causes bleeding in some patients and is "intrusive and crude". By 2015, he predicts, micro-computers in the brain with a range of applications could be self-powered and controlled by hand-held transmitters.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Faddists invent imaginary health dangers and ignore real ones

One in three toys was found to have "significant levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, flame retardants and arsenic," according to a new report from the anti-chemical industry. But don't let the report's political agenda distract you from very real toy safety issues.

In what is pitched as its second annual "consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys," the Michigan-based Ecology Center reported that, among the 1,500 toys that it tested: 20 percent contained lead, with 3.5 percent exceeding the current recall threshold for lead-based paint; 2.9 percent contained bromine at levels greater than 1,000 parts per million (ppm), indicating the use of brominated flame-retardants; 18.9 percent contained detectable levels of arsenic, with 1.4 percent containing greater than 100 ppm; 2.4 percent contained detectable levels of cadmium; 4.2 percent contained detectable levels of mercury, with 1 percent containing levels greater than 100 ppm; and 27 percent of toys were made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

All these chemicals and ppm-levels may sound scary, but what's the reality? First, it's important to keep in mind that there are no reports of any children being harmed by toys containing brominated flame retardants, arsenic, cadmium, mercury or PVC. Brominated flame retardants, in fact, help keep children safe by slowing the burn rate in case of a fire.

That no documented harm has been caused by these chemicals in toys comes as little surprise since, as the basic principle of toxicology goes, "it is the dose that makes the poison." All substances even air, water, sugar and salt, are "toxic" at sufficiently high exposures. All of us come into contact with potentially toxic substances every day in our air, water, food, clothes, jewelry, and personal care products, for example, but not at levels that cause harm. The Ecology Center made no effort to explore whether and to what extent children are actually exposed to the chemicals detected -- much less did it establish that any such exposure is harmful.

The Ecology Center aims to scare parents merely based on the mere detection of these chemicals in toys, which is nothing less than classic junk science. But what's more interesting -- and revealing about the Ecology Center's motives in fomenting the toy scare -- is that it entirely missed warning parents about a very real and deadly threat posed by some of the toys it tested.

Of the top ten lead-containing toys, six were jewelry (necklaces, charm bracelets and a pin) containing from 0.2 percent to about 41 percent lead, according to the Ecology Center. If you then go to the group's web page to find out why you should be scared about lead in toys, you first, and foremost, get the old environmentalist myths about how there is no safe exposure to lead and that lead causes lower IQ scores and other development problems. While the Ecology Center does mention some real health effects of lead poisoning, including muscle weakness, anemia, and kidney damage, it omitted the big one, death, and then fails to mention a real death that parents might find instructive.

In February 2006, a 4-year old Minnesota boy was taken to the hospital because of vomiting. He was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and released. Two days later, he returned and was admitted to the hospital. Ten hours later he was placed on a mechanical ventilator. The next day, blood work revealed that the boy had an extraordinarily high blood lead level of 180 micrograms per deciliter, and studies indicated that his brain was receiving no blood flow. He was removed from life support and died.

An autopsy retrieved from his stomach a heart-shaped charmed imprinted with "Reebok." His mother recognized the object as a charm that came with a pair of shoes belonging to another child whose home her son had visited, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was not aware that her son had ingested it, since he had no history of ingesting non-food substances. When tested, the charm was found to consist of 99.1 percent lead. Reebok voluntarily recalled the charms shortly thereafter and instructed parents to "immediately take the charm bracelets away from children and dispose of the entire bracelet."

Did the Ecology Center spotlight this incident and its outcome on its lead information page? No -- even though its "most dangerous" lead-containing toy is a Disney-brand Hannah Montana necklace with heart-shaped charms that are 40 percent lead. Study leader Jeff Gearhart told me that he had heard of the Minnesota poisoning case, but couldn't explain why mention of it was omitted.

Blinded by its anti-chemical agenda -- Gearhart told me that he was glad to see that companies were responding to the unwelcome spotlight of his research by reformulating their toys -- the Ecology Center apparently can't see the true dangers in the forest because it's focused on the politically incorrect "chemical" trees. If a public interest group, which is what the Ecology Center holds itself out to be, is really concerned about toy safety, how about alerting parents to real and specific dangers -- like swallowing small lead trinkets? But that's not all.

In 2007, there were 232,900 toy-related injuries among all ages, including 18 toy-related deaths among children under age 15, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Riding toys, including non-motorized scooters, and small toy balls were associated with most of the deaths. Most of the 232,900 injuries were lacerations, contusions and abrasions, most frequently to the face and head. Notably, there were no reports of injuries from chemicals in toys.

The Ecology Center seems to be worried about toy safety only to the extent that it helps the anti-chemical political agenda. But there are plenty of genuine toy safety concerns for consumers to consider. They ought not to be distracted from those realities by trumped-up, bogus scares.


Public Health Triumphs Over Fishy Activism

Napoleon Bonaparte famously told his army to never wake him for good news, "because with good news nothing presses." Napoleon never met the United States government, whose rare good-news day is usually cause for serious celebration. Today is a great example. The Washington Post reports that the Food and Drug Administration favors rolling back the government's ill-advised seafood warnings, which are aggressively promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency and a variety of activist fear mongers. If the plan becomes policy, the next FDA/EPA seafood advisory you see just might read: "We were all wrong. You should eat more fish."

We haven't seen the FDA's report yet, but the Post has. Apparently, it argues for an immediate reversal of a reckless 2004 advisory that urged limiting (or avoiding entirely) the consumption of certain seafood because of trace levels of mercury. This, of course, turned out to be a colossal error. Our recent investigative report, titled "Tuna Meltdown," found that more than a quarter-million underprivileged children were born at risk of having abnormally low IQs because of this wrong-headed government advice and the activist group warnings that followed.

The entire medical literature contains absolutely zero mercury-poisoning cases related to Americans eating commercially sold fish. Not one. And the neurological and cardiovascular benefits of eating large amounts of fish are well known, especially for pregnant women and their unborn children. The FDA's new report, writes the Post, argues "that nutrients in fish, including omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals could boost a child's IQ by three points." We're telling the media today that FDA's about-face is both long overdue and a huge public-health victory: "This just might be the best Christmas present health-conscious Americans could hope for."

Predictably, some activists are disoriented by the triumph of science over their fringe agendas. The Environmental Working Group, for example, called the report "astonishing" before resorting to playground name-calling. Why is good news for consumers bad news for activists? Simple: When the only thing you sell is food fear, consumers who understand that their lunch is safe are simply bad for business.

We shouldn't let scare campaigns obscure the truth about seafood. We'd like to think that Napoleon, who loved fish so much he ate them with his hands, would make an exception to his "good news" rule today


Monday, December 22, 2008

Does a younger dad mean a healthier child?

New studies from Tel Aviv University suggest that waiting until a man can give his son "all the advantages" may have a disadvantage, too

Tel Aviv University researchers found in several consecutive studies that older dads are more likely to have boys with autism and lower IQs. Most recently, they found that the older a father's age, the greater the chance that his son will display poor social abilities as a teen. Dr. Mark Weiser from TAU's Sackler School of Medicine and his team of researchers are now studying what causes this phenomenon. "There is a growing body of data showing that an advanced age of parents puts their kids at risk for various illnesses," says Dr. Weiser. "Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, appear to be more common the older parents get. Doctors and psychologists are fascinated by this, but don't really understand it. We want to know how it works."

To explore this important question, Dr. Weiser looked at data collected by the Israeli army. Subjects included more than 450,000 male teens, aged 16 and 17. The teens were asked these questions: How many good friends do you have? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you generally prefer to be with or without a group of friends? How often do you go out on Friday evenings? Do you tend to be at the center of a party? Controlling for the variables of IQ, mother's age, socioeconomic status and birth order, the researchers found that the prevalence of poor social functioning increased by 50% in boys with fathers 45 years old and up.

Dr. Weiser, who also works at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer hospital, cautions that the results are far from conclusive. "It could be that men with poorer social skills get married later in life, and therefore transmit this characteristic to their boys. But our studies attempted to control for this variable by looking at brothers from the same father," he explains.

He also suggests that older men shouldn't change their minds about having children since the statistical risk is relatively minor. "The effects of a father's age on the health of his son are quite small, and many of the most dramatic effects in this study are driven by dads in their 50s," says Dr. Weiser. "The difference in risk between someone who is 35 or 45 is so small that it's irrelevant."

Dr. Weiser continues, "But the findings are interesting for clinicians who are looking at the bigger picture of how parental age affects the mental functioning of offspring and what mechanisms are at play in that functioning." And Dr. Weiser doesn't rule out the possibility that older fathers may have better resources for getting their boys tested for autism when symptoms arise. Published in Oxford Journal's Schizophrenia Bulletin, the study builds on Dr. Weiser's previous research on parental age, autism and IQ scores.


New study shows that a cough medicine ingredient could effectively treat prostate cancer

A study published today in the December issue of the European medical journal Anticancer Research demonstrates that an ingredient used in a common cough suppressant may be useful in treating advanced prostate cancer. Researchers found that noscapine, which has been used in cough medication for nearly 50 years, reduced tumor growth in mice by 60% and limited the spread of tumors by 65% without causing harmful side effects.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that 186,320 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and 28,660 will die from it. One man in 6 will get prostate cancer during his lifetime. Although slow-growing in most men, the cancer is considered advanced when it spreads beyond the prostate. There is no known cure.

The laboratory study was a joint effort by Dr. Israel Barken of the Prostate Cancer Research and Educational Foundation, Moshe Rogosnitzky of MedInsight Research Institute, and Dr. Jack Geller of The University of California San Diego. Noscapine has previously been studied as a treatment for breast, ovarian, colon, lung and brain cancer and for various lymphomas, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and melanoma. This study, however, is the first to demonstrate its effectiveness in treating prostate cancer.

Noscapine is a naturally-occurring substance, a non-addictive derivative of opium. As a natural substance, noscapine cannot be patented, which has limited the potential for clinical trials. Rogosnitzky notes that drug companies are generally unwilling to underwrite expensive clinical trials without being able to recoup their investment. A synthetic derivative of noscapine has been patented but has not yet reached the clinical testing phase.

Since noscapine is approved for use in many countries as a cough suppressant, however, it is available to doctors to prescribe for other uses as well. This common practice is known as "off-label" prescription. Noscapine is increasingly being used off-label to treat a variety of cancers. Dr. Barken used noscapine to treat a handful of prostate cancer patients before retiring from clinical practice. Encouraged by the success of these treatments, his foundation funded the laboratory study being reported in the December 2008 edition of Anticancer Research.

As founder and medical director of the Prostate Cancer Research and Educational Foundation in San Diego, Dr. Barken is encouraging academic institutions to follow up this successful laboratory research with a human clinical trial. He has pioneered a web-based patient tracking system that will greatly reduce the cost of the trial while cutting the time necessary to complete the study. Using the web-based tracking system will also allow doctors outside the U.S. to enroll patients in the research.

Rogosnitzky, director of research at MedInsight Research Institute, points out the significant advantages that noscapine could present as a treatment for prostate cancer. "Noscapine is effective without the unpleasant side effects associated with other common prostate cancer treatments. Because noscapine has been used as a cough-suppressant for nearly half a century, it already has an extensive safety record. This pre-clinical study shows that the dose used to effectively treat prostate cancer in the animal model was also safe."

Hormone therapy and chemotherapy, along with radiation and surgery, are currently used to slow the progression of advanced prostate cancer. Side effects resulting from these treatments include impotence, incontinence, fatigue, anemia, brittle bones, hair loss, reduced appetite, nausea and diarrhea. No toxic side effects were observed in the laboratory study of noscapine.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Direct attack on tumour works

Spontaneous remissions are not uncommon with some cancers so the recovery below proves nothing. It is however an interesting straw in the wind. There have been some controlled trials that have indicated substantial benefit from the procedure

A woman given just months to live after developing cancer two years ago is looking forward to a 'miracle' Christmas with her family. Debbie Brewer was diagnosed in November 2006 with mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, but has beaten the odds thank to pioneering treatment in Germany.

The 49-year-old was awarded a six-figure compensation payment by the Ministry of Defence after she said the illness was caused by hugging her father, Phillip Northmore, when he worked as an asbestos lagger at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth in the 1960s.

She was told by doctors that she had between six and nine months to live but refused chemotherapy and instead travelled to The University Clinic in Frankfurt. A doctor had told her of an experimental treatment being carried out by Professor Thomas Vogl and Mrs Brewer used her compensation to pay for six sessions at the clinic. Now specialists have told her the tumour has shrunk by more than half, is in remission and will not come back. Mrs Brewer, who has three children - Siobhan, 22, Richard, 19, and Kieran, 11 - said it is a 'miracle'.

Now Mrs Brewer, from Plymouth, has started a campaign to have the treatment, which costs 3,500 pounds a session, brought to the UK for trials. She said: 'I want to give people hope. 'I was told for mesothelioma there is little out there but the results in Germany are fantastic - it's about a 60 per cent success rate. 'I didn't think I would see my youngest go to senior school, now I'm going to be enjoying Christmas with them.'

The treatment is known as chemoembolisation and is more commonly used to fight liver cancer. It introduces chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumour area through a catheter into the lung. Mrs Brewer said: 'They are able to directly attack the tumour through an artery so it targets just the tumour and not the nervous system as well.' She started the treatment in May and had her last of six chemoembolisation sessions this week. Mrs Brewer now hopes she has beaten the cancer for good and said if it does start to come back 'there is help available'.


Fatties to use elevators in fire evacuation

THE rising number of fat Australians has forced engineers to revise the policy of not using lifts during building evacuations because of fire. Fire Protection Association spokesman Peter Johnson said the rising number of obese Australians was slowing down fire drill times. There is a danger of larger people falling in stairwells and slowing the progress of other evacuees.

"For more than 30 years we have been told that we should not use lifts when a fire alarm sounds," Johnson said. "Now we have to change people's attitudes so they think of both lifts and stairs as being suitable for evacuation." Lifts are traditionally not used in evacuations due to the risk of breakdowns and exposure to heat and smoke.

Johnson said tests had shown using both stairs and lifts had reduced evacuation times by up to 40 per cent. Well-designed lift wells could also provide good access for firefighters. A study found workers on higher levels were more likely to consider using lifts during emergencies.

Johnson said fire escape standards should also include wider stairwells. More than half of Australians are either overweight or obese according to the latest Bureau of Statistics figures.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Oliver Twist's life not so gruelling

DOCTORS say they have uncovered the gruel truth of the Victorian workhouse. Charles Dickens, they contend, was exaggerating when he portrayed Oliver Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge. In fact, food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their British Medical Journal paper says.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote that the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday". On feast days, they received an extra 2 1/4 ounces (64 grams) of bread.

Four medical experts say in the report such a diet would have killed or crippled children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency. They sifted through contemporary documents and even replicated the gruel that workhouse children most likely had. Using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cookbook, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76 litres) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106 grams) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland. Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial", the authors say.

"Considerable amounts" of beef and mutton also went to London workhouses. The authors added a caveat, saying that their assumptions were made on the basis that inmates actually received the quantity and quality of food prescribed.


The diet aid delusion: Low-fat labels and pills don't deliver, says British watchdog

Those who over-indulge this Christmas may think the solution is to add some weight-loss products to their shopping basket. The idea that the festive flab can be banished by switching to `lite' versions of favourite brands or by taking a supplement certainly sounds tempting. But research by the consumer group Which? claims that the only pounds that many diet aids help you shed are the ones in your wallet.

The report, published today in the group's magazine, raises questions about the slimming claims of some leading brands and weightloss supplements. It points out that Kellogg's Special K, marketed as a low-fat cereal, has the same calories (171 per 30g) as Kellogg's Corn Flakes and more than Kellogg's Bran Flakes (157 per 30g). Weight Watchers thick-sliced white bread (68 calories per 29g slice) is nutritionally so similar to Warburtons Toastie sliced white (69 per 29g slice) and Asda Danish white bread (63 per 25g slice) that Which? recommends buying the one you think tastes best.

McVitie's light digestive biscuits have less fat than McVitie's original digestives, but more sugar (2.9g rather than 2.5g per 15g biscuit), meaning the difference between the biscuits is only four calories. M&S's Count On Us lasagne has 440 calories, far less than the M&S standard range, which has 620, but only a little less than the standard Morrisons lasagne which has 464. None of the seven over-the-counter weight-loss supplements examined could prove they offer long lasting beneficial effects, Which? experts said.

The consumer group's head of services research, Nikki Ratcliff, said: `If you're looking for a New Year quick fix to shed a few pounds, weight-loss products aren't the answer. The harsh reality is that exercise coupled with a healthy balanced diet is the only effective way to lose weight. `Just because foods are labelled as light or advertised as diet brands, it doesn't mean they're the lowest calorie option. Look at other similar products on the shelf - you might find some that don't brand themselves as light actually have fewer calories or less fat or less sugar, so you'd be better off buying them instead.'

But Dr Pamela Mason, an expert in herbal remedies and spokesman for the Health Supplements Information Service, insisted such products can help dieters lose weight. `Once someone has decided they need to lose weight, these products can play a good supportive role. Of course, anybody looking to lose weight needs to focus on diet and exercise,' she said.

The Food & Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers, said: `The improved labelling that now appears on all major brands is helping consumers to quickly spot whether or not a particular product meets their needs.'

A spokesman for Kellogg's defended Special K, saying: `There are very few products that offer you really tasty food and help you manage your shape and Special K absolutely delivers on both counts. `Consumers aren't stupid. The reason Special K is one of the UK's biggest selling cereals is because it works.'


Friday, December 19, 2008

Obesity is determined 'by the time a child is five'

So the tots are now in line for harassment. The results are ENTIRELY in line with genetically-determined overeating. That the kids were the same as earlier at birth means nothing. They had not by the time of birth had any influence on their nutritional intake

Child obesity is determined before the age of five, ministers were told yesterday. Scientists found that the majority of weight gain in children happens before they have started school, raising doubts over Government policies which target fatter children only when they start primary education. They urged ministers to launch more pre-school obesity initiatives. A quarter of children aged four and five in England are overweight, and around 10 per cent are classified as obese - so fat that their health is in danger.

Experts blame diets rich in fat, salt, sugar and processed foods, and say that bad dietary examples set by their parents could also be to blame. The findings, published in the journal Paediatrics, came from the EarlyBird study of 233 children from birth to puberty which were presented to ministers today. At birth, children in the study were the same weight as children born 25 years ago, the study found.

But by puberty they had gained more fat compared to children of the same age in the 1980s. Most of the excess weight gain was put on before the age of five, they found. Although the weight of a five-year-old bore no relation to his or her weight at birth, it closely predicted the weight the child would be at nine, indicating that the child's path to obesity began before school age but was not connected with birth weight. They found that before a girl gets to school, she will have gained 90 per cent of the excess weight she will have at puberty. Boys will have piled on an extra 70 per cent.

Lead researcher Professor Terry Wilkin, of Plymouth's Peninsula Medical School, said: 'When they reach five, the die seems to be cast, at least until the age of puberty.' He said he believed a poor diet probably had more effect than lack of physical exercise. 'It is entirely possible that the calorie density of food and portion sizes could be higher,' he said.

Professor Wilkin criticised Government policy which focuses on school age children, with initiatives to make school meals healthier and get children to play fewer computer games. Professor Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, said soaring rates of obesity amounted to an 'impending crisis'. He told the BBC: 'It is never too late. Obesity is one of the few serious medical problems that can be reversed very, very quickly.'

The Department of Health said: 'We have made obesity prevention, nutrition and physical activity a priority in the updated Child Health Promotion Programme. 'In addition, the Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers to put towards the cost of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables or infant formula to around half a million pregnant women and children under four in low income and disadvantaged families.'


Wonder wine 'cleans blood vessels'

Just the old resveratrol religion again. When properly tested, resveratrol does NOT do many of the things claimed for it -- such as prolong life

An Australian doctor says he has created the world's healthiest wine, which cleans your blood vessels and reduces the risk of heart attack as you drink it. Each bottle contained up to 100 times the amount of resveratrol - a naturally occurring anti-oxidant found in grapes - than a standard drop, says Sydney's Dr Philip Norrie.

Resveratrol helped to maintain blood flow by keeping arteries free of fatty deposits called atherosclerotic plaque, Dr Norrie said, and a wine infused with high levels of the odourless, tasteless anti-oxidant would act as a "vascular pipe-cleaner''.

"While the positive effects of moderate wine consumption have long been documented, the inclusion of such large quantities of this beneficial anti-oxidant is very good news for wine drinkers,'' says Dr Norrie. "What we've been able to do is boost the amount of resveratrol in wine and you wont even know its there ... you're effectively clearing your arteries while you drink.'' Dr Norrie is producing both a chardonnay and a shiraz with each having 100mg/L of resveratrol per bottle. He said this was as much as is contained in 70 to 100 bottles of standard white wine or 15 to 20 bottles of standard red.

"I stress that these benefits are best realised with moderate drinking,'' Dr Norrie also said in a warning to any connoisseurs planning a wine-based health kick. University of Queensland cardiologist Associate Professor David Colquhoun also stressed the need for "moderate'' consumption as he said the benefits of resveratrol were well known. "Studies have strongly suggested that consumption of wine rich in resveratrol can lessen cardio-vascular disease, heart attack and stroke, he said. [Whisky and beer are pretty good too so could it just be the alcohol?]


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sarcasm used to diagnose dementia

I like this. I do use sarcasm on occasions so if ever I get misunderstood as a result, I might tell the thick one that he is demented. It would be as logical as a lot of the medical reasoning that I review on this blog

Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but scientists are using it to diagnose dementia. Researchers at the University of New South Wales found that patients under the age of 65 suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the second most common form of dementia, cannot detect when someone is being sarcastic.

The study, described by its authors as groundbreaking, helps explain why patients with the condition behave the way they do and why, for example, they are unable to pick up their caregivers' moods, the research showed. "This is significant because if care-givers are angry, sad or depressed, the patient won't pick this up. It is often very upsetting for family members," said John Hodges, the senior author of the paper published in Brain.

''(FTD) patients present changes in personality and behaviour. They find it difficult to interact with people, they don't pick up on social cues, they lack empathy, they make bad judgements,'' he said. "People with FTD become very gullible and they often part with large amounts of money," he said, adding that one in 4000 people around the world are afflicted with the condition.

Researchers began studying the role of sarcasm in detecting FTD because it requires a patient to spot discrepancies between a person's words and the tone of their voice, Mr Hodges said. "One of the things about FTD patients is that they don't detect humour - they are very bad at double meaning and a lot of humour (other than sarcasm) is based on double meaning," he said.

The research, conducted in 2006-07, put 26 sufferers of FTD and 19 Alzheimer's patients through a test in which actors acted out different scenarios using exactly the same words. While in one scenario, the actors would deliver the lines sincerely, in others they would introduce a thick layer of sarcasm. Patients were then asked if they got the joke, Hodges said.

For example, if a couple were discussing a weekend away and the wife suggested bringing her mother, the husband might say: "Well, that's great, you know how much I like your mother, that will really make it a great weekend." When the same words were delivered sarcastically and then in a neutral tone, the joke was lost on FTD patients, while the Alzheimer's patients got it. "The patients with FTD are very literal and they take what is being said as genuine and sincere," Mr Hodges said.


Common mushroom shown to help beat disease in study

I gather that this was an in vitro (laboratory) study so generalizability to live humans cannot be assumed. The abstract is here.

MUSHROOMS could play an important role in the fight against cancer, according to research reported on by the International Journal of Oncology. The study evaluated extracts from edible mushrooms and their impact on human breast cancer and colon cancer cells. "In our study we demonstrate that an edible oyster mushroom inhibits the growth of breast and colon cancer cells without affecting the normal cells," US researcher Daniel Sliva said. "The mushroom inhibits intra-cellular signalling molecules in cancer cells. ''These molecules are over-active in cancer cells and responsible for their 'bad' behaviour."

Dr Sliva and Andrej Jedinak from Indiana University's Cancer Research Laboratory in Indianapolis reported on the potential medical benefits of common mushroom species in the December issue of the International Journal of Oncology. "Mushrooms generally contain a lot of natural compounds, for example polysaccharides, mainly beta-D-glucans, which can boost the positive immune response, and other natural molecules," Dr Sliva said. "We can scientifically demonstrate that, in addition to their culinary value, mushrooms have a natural potential to protect against a variety of diseases."

Dietitian Glenn Cardwell said the findings supported earlier studies, which had pointed to a wide range of potential health benefits, including anti-tumour effects, immune-system benefits and the presence of significant antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. "Consumers already know mushrooms are a delicious part of the balanced diet,'' he said. ''Research highlighting long-term health benefits provides even more good reasons to add mushrooms into their next meal."


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Handful of nuts a day can help prevent onset of heart disease

And the commentary below is pretty nuts too. Metabolic disorder is a pervasive malfunction so generalizing to normal people from what helps suffers from metabolic disorder is most incautious. Nobody knows what the interaction there was

Eating a handful of nuts a day may help to prevent a number of factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Researchers found combining a mixture of nuts with a Mediterranean diet had a greater impact on health than sticking to an olive oil-rich diet alone. Up to 25 per cent of people in the UK suffer from metabolic syndrome, which includes symptoms such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Scientists tested more than 1,200 volunteers with the syndrome, ranging in age from 55 to 80. They were randomly assigned to follow one of three diets and were monitored for a year by a research team from the University of Rovira i Virgili in Reus, Spain. The participants had no prior history of heart disease, but some had risk factors including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal obesity. At the start, 751 people had metabolic syndrome, about 61 per cent, distributed evenly among the three groups.

Researchers found the people who improved most were those told to eat a mixture of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds each day alongside a Mediterranean diet. They did not lose weight, on average, but more of them succeeded in reducing belly fat and saw improvements in their cholesterol and blood pressure.

A second group was given basic advice about reducing all fat in their diets while a third ate a Mediterranean diet and was told to make sure they ate more than four tablespoons of olive oil a day. [That's lot of oil!]

After one year, all three groups had fewer people with metabolic syndrome, but the group eating nuts led the improvement, now with 52 per cent having those heart risk factors. In the olive oil group, 57 per cent had the syndrome while in the low-fat group, there was very little difference after a year in the percentage of people with the syndrome.

A Mediterranean diet uses olive oil for cooking and includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and fish. White meat is preferred to beef or processed meat as is red wine.


Fixing P53 Gene Kills Cancer But Results in Rapid Aging?

It's a tiny molecule with a nondescript name - "p53" - but it has an awesome responsibility: preventing more than half of all human cancers. Some scientists call it the "guardian angel," "guardian of the genome," or the "dictator of life and death." P53 is a protein, a string of 393 chemical units stored in the DNA of most of the body's cells. Normally, p53 works to suppress malignant tumors. When it's missing or mutated, however, it can't carry out its lifesaving mission and lets cancerous cells run amok.

Scientists are developing drugs to repair or restore damaged p53 in mice, but so far none of those drugs are ready to treat human cancers. Almost 50,000 papers about p53 have been published in scientific journals, but its workings are still not fully understood, and it's little known outside the worlds of biology and medicine.

P53 is "certainly the most studied protein in the whole history of cancer," Magali Olivier , an expert at the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyons, France , wrote in the journal Cancer Gene Therapy this fall.

Arnold Levine , a cancer expert at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. , who discovered p53 almost 30 years ago, said "We have uncovered and explored a process central to life - how a cell responds to stress or perturbation in its environment." Here's how it works: A normal p53 protein detects a patch of DNA in the nucleus of a cell that has been damaged by accident, a virus, radiation, smoking or other environmental assaults, raising the chance that the cell will turn cancerous. P53 triggers a complex biochemical program that stops the pre-cancerous cell from dividing until it repairs its DNA or commits suicide.

When p53 itself is flawed, however, it allows other cancer-causing genes (known as oncogenes) to hijack the cell's control machinery and set it free to spread wildly - the hallmark of cancer. "Loss of p53 function in cells leads to uncontrolled proliferation and promotes cancer development," Olivier wrote in a summary of recent p53 research.

The gene that carries the instructions to make p53 is called TP53. Mutations in the gene may be inherited, which is why some cancers run in families. TP53 is "the most mutated gene in human cancer, and these mutations are correlated with more than 50 percent of all human cancer," said Ronen Marmorstein , an expert on gene regulation at the Wistar Institute in West Philadelphia, Pa. According to Gerard Evan , a researcher at the University of California's Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco , p53 mutations are also associated with more aggressive cancers, resistance to treatment by radiation and chemotherapy, and decreased patient survival.

Despite the vast amount of research, work is only beginning on cancer therapies based on fixing damaged p53. Nevertheless, hopes are rising that the immense body of knowledge about p53 will lead to better ways to diagnose, prevent and treat cancer. "The growing number of p53-targeting strategies raises hope for more efficient cancer therapies in the future," reported Swedish researcher Klas Wiman in the journal Cell Death and Differentiation.

In an experiment in his San Francisco lab, for example, Evan restored damaged p53 in mice suffering from lymphoma. "The tumors were completely dead within hours." Evan said. "This result is very good news to the many of us who are thinking about trying to restore p53 function in established human cancers."

Unfortunately, restoring p53 may cause accelerated aging, at least in mouse experiments. "Cancer and senescence may be seen as two alternative fates in aging organisms, the secret of longevity being to find the best possible trade-off between these two options," Olivier reported.

Many questions remain about the workings of p53. "Complete understanding still remains elusive," Antony Braithwaite , a New Zealand researcher, wrote in Cell Death and Differentiation. "How p53 makes decisions to do one thing or another, or turn on one gene or another, is far from clear." To accomplish its job, p53 has scan three billion letters in the human genetic code to decide which genes it's going to activate or repress. "This is a tall order," Braithwaite wrote.