Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Powdered Alcohol? Not Quite Yet…

You’ve all heard the joke about powdered water (“Just add water and stir”). But did you know that someone has actually managed to create a powdered alcohol product? It’s called Palcohol. Just add it to water and presto, you have an alcoholic beverage.

Last week it was reported that the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau had approved Palcohol. In truth, the bureau’s only role is to approve the packaging and labeling of alcoholic products. The choice of whether or not to allow the sale of alcoholic products is up to the individual states. After the story broke and people began expressing their opinions about the product, the bureau said that its approval of the product packaging had been “issued in error”. Final packaging approval is on hold for now. And whether any states will eventually approve Palcohol for sale is anybody’s guess.

Folks have come up with all sorts of imaginative ideas (both and good and bad) for how powdered alcohol could be used or abused. Not everyone is convinced that this product should ever reach store shelves. What do you think? Would you use it, and if so, how?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Problems with Herbal Supplements

A study by Canadian researchers provides the best evidence yet that many herbal supplement products may not be what they seem.

Using DNA analysis, the researchers first developed a DNA “barcode” library of over 100 different species of plants commonly used in herbal remedies. Then they compared the DNA barcodes of the herbal plant ingredients in 44 different herbal supplement products from 12 manufacturers against the barcode library. All of the tested products are currently available in the U.S. and Canada.

The results were, in a word, shocking. Only about half of the supplement products tested were “authentic”, meaning that the plant species listed on the product label was present in the product. However, that did not mean that the product was pure; a third of these authentic products contained contaminants and/or fillers such as rice, wheat or alfalfa. Of the 44 products tested, fully a third were complete fakes; they contained none of the herb listed on the label.

How about the quality of the different supplement manufacturers? The number of samples tested was small (only 44 products tested from 12 companies) so statistical analysis isn’t possible. Nevertheless, the researchers report that only two companies’ products were all authentic and free of contaminants or fillers. At the other end of the scale, the tested products of three companies were all complete fakes. The researchers did not provide the names of the companies, but wouldn’t we like to know?!

It’s “buyer’s beware” when it comes to herbal supplements. Take them at your own risk.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

GINA Doesn’t Protect Against Genetic Discrimination

The costs of having your DNA analyzed for known genetic diseases has plummeted in recent years – to under $1,000.  That is good news for those who might want their DNA analyzed.  But some people have avoided being tested out of privacy concerns.

To protect the privacy of your genetic information, in 2008 Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  GINA stipulates that employers and health care providers cannot seek the results of genetic testing, and cannot discriminate on the basis of genetic information.  It sounds good, right?

Wrong!   It turns out that GINA does not apply to life, disability, or long-term care insurers!   If you apply for life insurance after having your DNA tested, the insurance company can require you to answer truthfully (“Have you had your DNA tested?”) and then compel you to provide the results of your DNA test before deciding whether or not to insure you.   And if your genetic profile indicates that you might be at risk for a specific genetic disease, you might find yourself uninsurable even though you are currently healthy.

I was surprised to learn that congressional sponsors of GINA were aware of this when GINA was passed in 2008.   Apparently, it took more than a decade to get GINA approved by Congress.  My guess is that there was intense opposition to GINA from the insurance industry.  In the end, the bill’s sponsors had to settle for just part of what they wanted (non-discrimination in health insurance and employment), and give up on the rest.

Truthfully?   GINA doesn’t fully live up to its name.  And that’s unfortunate.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Blood Test for Concussions

A Swedish team of researchers has developed a blood test to help determine who might have suffered a concussion.  The new test measures the amount of two specific proteins in the blood; a nerve cell protein called tau, and a protein called “S-100 calcium-binding protein B”, found in neuroglial supporting cells in the brain called astrocytes.

In developing and validating the test, the researchers took blood samples from 47 Swedish professional hockey players before the hockey season began, to establish baseline values of the two proteins.  During the 2012-2013 Swedish hockey season 35 of the 288 hockey players who had agreed ahead of time to participate in the study suffered concussions.   Blood samples were taken from the injured players at 1, 12, 36, and 144 hours after concussive injury.  In these 35 players, the blood levels of both proteins rose within the first hour after the injury to approximately twice the baseline values.  Both markers fell toward baseline in subsequent samples.

Together, the data suggest that elevated levels of these two markers an hour after a possible injury are a sign that a concussive injury has indeed occurred.

The new test could become part of the normal procedure for diagnosing head injuries in sports.   If it could be packaged in a simple-to-use kit form, it may also help sports physicians and coaches decide whether a player should be allowed to return to play in the late stages of a game, or instead, sent for further medical diagnosis and treatment.

For more on the subject of diagnosing concussions, go to a previous blog post titled "Measuring the Severity of Head Impacts in Sports."

Monday, April 7, 2014

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Don’t Protect Against Heart Disease?

Do an Internet search on “omega-3 fatty acids” and you’ll find that omega-3s, as they are called, are a type of polyunsaturated fat. They’re a minor component of cell membranes and they have effects in blood clotting. And since your body doesn’t make them, some omega-3s in your diet are considered essential to good health. Eating fatty fish (such as sardines or salmon), nuts, or certain plant oils (canola or soybean oil) occasionally should be sufficient.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll undoubtedly read that omega-3s protect against heart disease and stroke. That claim has spawned a huge omega-3 supplements industry, which encourages you to take an omega-3 supplement pill every day to ward off heart disease. This claim is often backed by at least one research study to support the claim. But is it true?

A recent meta-analysis* of the role of various fats in cardiovascular disease questions the cardiovascular protective effect of omega-3s. To understand why this particular analysis is so important, you need to know what a “meta-analysis” is. Basically, a meta-analysis is a study of many previous studies. In a meta-analysis, each previous study is a single data point. That makes meta-analysis an exceedingly powerful tool to tease out small effects, when one paper may say one thing and another says something quite different.

This particular meta-analysis examined 72 previous research studies, involving over 500,000 people overall. Some of the studies were observational, meaning that they examined the relationship between measured specific fatty acid biomarkers and heart disease risk. Others studies were randomized, controlled experiments of fatty acid supplementation. Overall, there was not a statistically lower risk of cardiovascular disease among participants in the high omega-3 groups, in either kind of study.

Bottom line: You probably get enough of the minimum amounts of omega-3s required for good health in your normal diet. I, for one, won’t be taking an omega-3 pill every day just to avoid heart disease. (For those of you will still choose to take omega-3s “just to be sure”, rest easy; there was no evidence presented in this meta-study that they harm you, either.)

* The complete manuscript is only available by subscription.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Stem Cell Paper Challenged

Two months ago I reported on an exciting new finding (this blog Feb. 3, 2014) that a Japanese and American team of researchers had developed a simple way to produce pluripotent stem cells from adult cells.   The paper was hailed as a breakthrough of sorts.  If true, it suggested that deriving stem cells from embryos (always controversial) might no longer be necessary.

That finding is now in serious doubt, because other researchers have been unable to verify the data.   A blog site that is following attempts to duplicate the research says that most researchers no longer believe that the findings are real (search STAP cells).   The research institute where the Japanese researchers work is investigating.   So far the original paper has not been retracted, but that’s a distinct possibility.

How can we have any faith in scientific discoveries if the story changes month-to-month?  The answer is that science is not about having faith.   It’s about verifying and then verifying again, until we can have confidence, backed by reproducible data, in what we know.   It’s messy.  Sometimes the answer isn’t what we thought it was, but over time we get closer and closer to the truth, whatever it is.

As for pluripotent stem cells, it’s back to square one when it comes to creating them from adult cells, apparently. Embryos may yet be needed for awhile.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Arizona Restricts the Use of Mifeprex (RU-486)

New rules take effect in Arizona today that limit the use of the abortion pill, RU-486.  The new rules restrict the use of RU-486 to within the first seven weeks of pregnancy, and only in the doses approved by the FDA back in 2000.   In addition, both doses of the drug (two are required) must be administered in a health clinic.  The new rules make Arizona one of the most restrictive states in the nation regarding the use of RU-486.

The rules were announced in January, but implementation was delayed by a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood.   Yesterday a U.S. District judge refused to grant an injunction against the rules, opening the way for them to take effect today.

Most states permit the use of RU-486 (when used in combination with a synthetic progesterone) up to nine weeks after pregnancy.  The combination of the two drugs has been shown to be effective for two weeks longer than RU-486 alone, and it’s considered safer because a lower dose of RU-486 is needed.   In addition, the combination drug can be taken at home.

Why did women’s health advocates fight the rules?  It’s not just that two weeks are being cut off the available treatment window for a chemical abortion.  More importantly, the rules restrict the use of RU-486 to a treatment regimen which is rarely used these days because it is no longer considered the most safe and effective by physicians.

Apparently that doesn’t matter in Arizona.  The state has a history of proposing abortion-unfriendly legislation.