Rethinking Healthcare

Five amazing discoveries you missed during the holidays

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While you were busy celebrating the holidays, the news didn't cease. Learn more about gut bacteria, therapeutic humming, white plague, alfalfa salmonella and pharmaceutical conflict of interest.

Here are five stories from last week that you might have missed while busy with visions of sugar plums or caught in the snow. (And by the way, scientists have also sequenced the genomes of chocolate and strawberry.)

1. Gut bacteria help with immunity

Bacteria. Are. Everywhere. So how exactly do those in our bodies help boost our immune systems?

A new Science study with mice shows how those from the genus Clostridium promote the generation of regulatory T cells (Treg) — white blood cells that suppress immune responses against your own cells.

Kenya Honda from the University of Tokyo and colleagues got rid of all the bacteria from the mice’s colons and found that the Treg population plummeted. But they returned when those mice were doused with Clostridium.

This discovery is “one of the first studies that identifies a specific example of a commensal microbe affecting regulatory T cells," says coauthor Ivaylo Ivanov from Columbia University.

It also suggests new therapeutic approaches to allergies and autoimmune diseases. Because, when an immune system goes into overdrive, it can cause allergies and destroy healthy cells and tissues, causing autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis or scaly skin, and Crohn's disease [Vancouver Sun].

2. Hummmming eases sinus problems

That is, according to an American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine study.

Sinus infections — which afflict more than 37 million Americans every year — generally occur when the lining of the sinuses becomes inflamed, trapping air and pus and other secretions, and leading to pain, headaches and congestion [New York Times]. And humming, the study suggests, is a great way to keep air flowing smoothly between the sinus and nasal cavities.

The researchers from Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm examined the airflow in 10 people as they hummed versus when they silently exhaled. Humming led to vastly greater levels of nasal nitric oxide (NO). Since NO is produced in the sinuses, this showed that humming enhanced ventilation.

3. The white plague reinvades London

In the 17th century, tuberculosis ravaged London, with 1,000 cases per 100,000 people a year. (This is much, much higher than TB rates in sub-Saharan African countries now.) Victorians even nicknamed the disease the white plague due to the loss of skin colour seen in patients [New York Times].

By 1980, it was considered conquered in Britain by antibiotics, vaccines, and better housing.

But now, a new Lancet study says that cases there have increased 50% in the last decade. The disease is particularly common in districts with poor housing, among the homeless, and in prisons.

4. Salmonella in alfalfa!

An outbreak sickened 89 people in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on the eve of Christmas Eve. About 23% of the sickened were hospitalized, and no one died.

Preliminary results indicate a link to eating alfalfa sprouts at a national sandwich chain, says the CDC. Many of the 50 cases in Illinois ate sprouts at Jimmy John’s locations [CNN].

The bacterial infection lasts up to a week and the symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. And if you’re pregnant, you might consider cooking your sprouts.

5. Pharma: fewer conflicts, more penalties

US medical schools are improving their policies on conflicts of interest between faculty and pharmaceutical companies — such as restrictions on gifts and consulting relationships, reports Nature News.

The American Medical Student Association recently released a ‘scoreboard’ showing how 52% of schools scored 'A' or 'B' for their policies, which are up from 30% in 2009 and 14% in 2008.

Also, according to a study released by DC nonprofit Public Citizen, public settlements paid by pharmaceutical companies to both the state and federal governments for illegal behavior climbed to $14.8 billion over the past five years.

As Nature News reports, illegal off-label promotion was responsible for the largest amount of federal penalties, and settlements under the False Claims Act — for activities such as inflating drug prices — now exceed those made by the defense industry.

Image: Ogden family Christmas cookies

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure