Monday, September 15, 2014

Alcoholic Beverages Made From Non-GMO Grains

A leading manufacturer of distilled alcohol products has announced that it will begin manufacturing a line of neutral grain spirits from non-GMO grain, in addition to its traditional products made from genetically modified grains. The company says that it’s a market-driven decision, based on consumer perceptions that GMO foods may pose “unknown safety risks”.

If you oppose the development and planting of GMO plants because you think they might be bad for the environment, then you can rightfully cheer this decision. But if you think that drinking a distilled alcohol product made from GMO grains might be more harmful to drink than alcohol made from non-GMO grain, you’re misguided. Although the grain from GMO plants would contain a foreign protein or two, proteins are destroyed by the heat of the distillation process. And even if proteins weren’t destroyed by heat, they don’t vaporize and then condense again, so they wouldn’t end up in the final distillation product anyway. The final distillation product is essentially just alcohol and water.

The bottom line is that there aren’t any GMO proteins in distilled alcohol, even when it’s made from GMO grain. By making distilled alcohol products from non-GMO grain, the manufacturer is responding to the perception of a health risk by its potential customers, not the actual reality.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Connection Between HIV and Multiple Sclerosis

It began as an observation in 2011; an Australian doctor who treats patients with HIV noticed that he had never had an HIV patient who went on to develop multiple sclerosis (MS). A literature search essentially confirmed his observations - there was just one known HIV patient who developed MS, and that patient's symptoms went away after undergoing the usual treatment regimen for HIV. So, he thought; is HIV infection (or its treatment regimen) somehow protective against MS?

To find out, the doctor and his coworkers needed access to the records of a large number of patients, because the number of people in a population who are HIV-positive is not all that large, and the number who develop MS is smaller still. They found what they needed in the records of the National Health Service of England. Among over 21,000 HIV-positive patients, they found only seven MS patients, when (according to a non-HIV-infected control group) there should have been 18. In other words, HIV-positive patients being treated for their disease were 60% less likely to develop MS. The results are published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

MS develops when the patient's immune system attacks the sheaths protecting nerve cells in the central nervous system. Some researchers think that the trigger causing the immune system to attack is an unknown virus. If so, there's a good possibility that the antiviral cocktail used to treat HIV is also attacking this unknown virus, thereby reducing the risk of developing MS.

Much more research needs to be done before we can be sure. But here's a case where the curiosity of an observant doctor may ultimately lead to an effective treatment for MS.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Organic Foods Contain More Antioxidants

Back in 2012, a comprehensive meta-analysis of many previous studies concluded that in terms of nutrition, organic foods are generally no better for you than non-organic foods (this blog Sept. 6, 2012). Of course, that didn’t sit too well with supporters of the organic food movement. Well finally, proponents of organic foods have something to talk about, too. Another comprehensive meta-analysis, this one by primarily European researchers, concludes that organic foods have fewer pesticides and more antioxidants than non-organic foods.

The finding of fewer pesticides is to be expected, of course, since the pesticides they’re talking about aren’t supposed to be used on organically grown crops in the first place. The same was found in the previous nutritional study. The finding that organic foods contain more antioxidants will be welcomed by supporters of organic foods. As you may know, antioxidants are thought to be protective against cell damage, and hence could (in theory) assist in delaying cellular aging and possibly reducing the risk of cancer.

Unfortunately, “in theory” does not always coincide with “in reality”. Neither group of authors is claiming that eating organic foods actually leads to better health, because at the moment there is no evidence to support such a claim. If its better health we want, we should concentrate on eating more fruits and vegetables of either kind (organic or non-organic) according to our preference, and less refined sugar and fat.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Illegal Human Organ Trafficking

It is illegal to sell or buy human organs in most countries. It is also against the principles of the Transplant Society and the International Society of Nephrology, whose joint Declaration of Istanbul states that organ trafficking and transplant tourism “ violate the principle of equity, justice, and respect for human dignity and should be prohibited.”

But where there’s money to be made, someone will try to make it. As the gap between the demand for kidneys and their supply (from cadavers or live donors) continues to widen, unscrupulous underground “businessmen” manage to bring desperate patients and willing sellers together, for money. If you can find one of these kidney brokers, the going price seems to be nearly $200,000 to buy a kidney, but less than $20,000 to sell one.

Kidney brokers are rarely caught and convicted, in part because they may not live on the same continent as the buyer and seller. So where exactly is the crime committed? Furthermore, brokers claim to enlist only altruistic donors who are not paid. They tell the potential buyer that the high price is to “cover expenses”. Donors are paid under the table and then coached to say that they are not doing it for money. No one really believes that, however, when the donor is from Costa Rica and the patient (a total stranger) is from Israel or the U.S. Desperate buyers are willing to turn a blind eye to the truth when their life is at stake. For a peek into this shadowy world, see the New York Times article on the subject or visit the Declaration of Istanbul website highlighted above.

Reasonable people have argued that the only way to eliminate the black market in human organs is to permit the buying and selling of organs, subject to controls to protect potential donors. They argue that thousands of lives could be saved every year. Whether buying/selling organs could be done without undue coercion of the poor is still an open question. At least one study in this country suggests that perhaps it could (this blog, April 26, 2010.) I’m not convinced, however, that the same results would hold in places where people are truly desperate, and not just below the average U.S. income. I’m reserving judgment on this idea for now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Societies Collapse

Why have some of the greatest human societies of all time essentially collapsed to insignificance, or at least undergone steep declines? What fate awaits today’s most important societies, or even the human race as a whole? Is collapse inevitable?

A study to be published in Ecological Economics offers some interesting observations on these questions, based on a mathematical modeling analysis of past societies. According to the authors of the paper, two commonly-observed events associated with societal collapse or steep decline are; 1) resource over-use beyond carrying capacity, and 2) social stratification (increased separation into rich versus poor). The first factor should be obvious to any student of biology: Any population, whether it be bacteria or humans, must ultimately undergo a decline in population or at least a decline in living standards if it depletes the resources available to it. That concept is at the heart of the philosophy that ultimately humans must learn to live within a “sustainable world” if we are to stay healthy, happy, and successful.

The second factor, social stratification, is not so obvious. The authors propose several ways that increased separation between rich and poor could affect a society. One might be that the rich over-utilize resources, leaving too few resources for the poor. Another could be that as the poor make it into the rich category, there are too few workers left to do a society’s work.

Press reports of the study have made it sound as if we’re doomed. But nothing about the study implies that at all. There’s no reason why an enlightened society couldn’t make an effort to minimize social stratification and learn to use its resources wisely. Forewarned is forearmed.

Friday, August 15, 2014

First Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria; Now Herbicide-Resistant Weeds

Nearly all of the corn and soybeans planted in this country have been genetically modified to make them resistant to a common herbicide called Roundup (glyphosate). Such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be sprayed with Roundup during the growing season to kill weeds without harming the crop.

Given what we know about how the over-use of antibiotics has led to the appearance of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, what did we think would happen when we began spraying GMO crops heavily with a single herbicide? Why, of course - Roundup-resistant weeds! According to a recent New York Times article, an invasive Roundup-resistant weed called palmer amaranth (carelessweed) is already sweeping northward from the south, wreaking havoc on farmers’ fields.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup and the developer of the GMO seeds most farmers now plant, is planning even more genetic modification of corn and soybeans to make them resistant to other herbicides as well, allowing farmers to spray more than one herbicide on their crops. Each new modification will buy farmers some time in the perpetual battle against weeds (and also enrich Monsanto). But it’s not hard to see that in the long run this is a losing game; the over-use of any herbicide will ultimately lead to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. Adaptation and evolution are hallmarks of the natural world. Farmers will have to develop other approaches (in addition to just spraying herbicides) to combat weeds effectively.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Two Experimental Drugs Used to Treat Ebola

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Two drugs are currently being used to treat patients with Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola). Both are relatively untested, meaning they are a long way from being formally approved by the FDA. But when the choice is between watching patients die or trying something, it seems that trying something wins out.

The use of untested drugs and/or drugs in very short supply raises all kinds of ethical issues, of course. The first drug, called ZMapp, had never been tried on humans before now. It was first used on the two Americans who contracted the disease in Liberia and who have since been flown to Atlanta. Aside from the issue of risk to the two patients, there’s the troubling ethical question of favoritism; why was it given to the two Americans first, and not to any of the many African patients? (On the other hand, had it been given first to Africans, there would be complaints that Africans were being used as guinea pigs. You can’t win this one!). 

The second drug, called TKM-Ebola, was already in the human testing phase when the Ebola epidemic began. But the tests, which were being conducted on normal human volunteers, had been halted temporarily because of side effects in one volunteer. Given the current situation, though, the FDA took the unprecedented step of approving TKM-Ebola for Ebola patients anyway. Apparently the FDA felt that the potential benefits to patients who actually had Ebola far outweighed the risks.

It takes time to ramp up the production of any drug. Both drugs will be in short supply in the near future, which means that choosing which patients will get them will remain an issue for a while. From a medical point of view, it’ll be interesting to see how effective they actually are.