Sunday, February 24, 2013

The probiotic...glow?

I have pondered the validity of probiotics many times over the past couple of years, wrestling with the boundless enthusiasm of Jamie Lee Curtis versus the seeming lack of solid scientific data.  I learned at the Digestive Disease Week conference in San Diego last year, that one would have to eat about 6 probiotic yogurts a day to get enough of the beneficial little beasties within to make much of a difference to the symptoms of, say, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  At the conference there were several vendors hawking probiotics and even a 'Probiotics for Dummies' booklet.  I remained sceptical.
Since that conference I have read quite a bit on gut bugs, more correctly known as the gastrointestinal microbiome.  Overall, we have ten times more bacteria in our bodies that we have actual cells, and a hefty chunk of those are in our lower intestines.  So what difference would adding a few more possibly make?
Well, aside from the assertions regarding internal effects, a new paper has suggested probiotics may have a more visible benefit that may even confer an evolutionary benefit.  Researchers from Greece, Canada and MIT in the US, noticed that the fur of mice being fed probiotic yoghurt for studies on intestinal effects became unusually lustrous as the experiments progressed.  They followed up with a separate study on the effects of the probiotic yoghurt on the fur and indeed found daily consumption of the yoghurt with the probiotic microorganism Lacotobacillu reuteri (L. reuteri)  resulted in thicker skin and more lustrous fur, that was in part related to an effect on the immune system. To be sure it wasn't the yoghurt itself that was responsible, in a separate group of mice the investigators supplemented the diet  with the L. reuteri bug in drinking and found the same effect.  What's more, they also found increased acidity in the mucous membranes of the animals which they associated with increased fertility. The investigators thus concluded that the 'healthful glow' imparted on the animals from eating the probiotic yoghurt ( or drinking the 'good bug' in water) was an external display of fertility. Studies in humans are sure to follow, faster than you can say Activia. In the meantime, I am off to see what's in the 'fridge....

Levkovich et al. Probiotic Bacteria Induce a ‘Glow of Health’. PLoS One. 2013; 8(1): e53867.Published online 2013 January 16. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0053867

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

That was 2012.

A new year, a new resolution to blog more.  Of course, it never translates into me being more productive.   However, I am starting with a new blog post to kick off the year and as part of it I thought I would review what I learned in 2012 and what I am excited about for the coming year.  My major discovery last year was the world of epigenetics, acquired through a writing opportunity to cover the COST conference on Personalized Medicine that took place in Cyprus last June.  The conference was definitely the highlight of my work year and I hope to do it again this coming year if the follow-up goes ahead. The conference was designed to bring together practitioners of diverse disciplines to discuss personalized medicine from a number of perspectives and I was lucky enough to interview many of the participants and write up the summary of the conference.  Physicians, physiologists, engineers and philosophers were just a smattering of the perspectives represented. The field of epigenetics (the study of heritable influences on the genome, caused directly or indirectly by  environment and experience) was new to me, and I talked to as many 'experts' as I could about it and I came away convinced that the next major breakthroughs in medicine will be in epigenetics.  I also came away feeling that the most significant current hurdle we must address as scientists and physicians is overcoming our inability to put the complexity of our current health environment into manageable and communicable frameworks. We will only be able to do this if we start to think about problems holistically and top down, rather than from a reductionist perspective which by definition, is bottom up. The Parmenides Institute in Munich is at the forefront of this quest and on my wish list for 2013 is a visit to see Prof Albrect von Mueller at the institute to learn about the work and the tools being developed to expand cognitive reach in children and adults.
In mid 2012, I started a new job as scientific director of a medical communications agency; while I loved freelancing, I needed a regular income to pay for college and for health insurance.  I miss the freelancing lifestyle, but the new job is fun too.  I traveled quite a bit and already have much more planned for 2013. I also learned more than any normal person ever needs to know about the GI system. This coming year we have plenty of other areas of interest in the offing, including my favorite, neuroscience.   I am also exploring new business opportunities with a few friends, and I'll have more on that over the next few months.
In August last year, I wrote an invited editorial for the Personalized Medicine journal on crowdsourcing science and am following up with something similar in a cancer journal in the first quarter of 2013.  Crowdsourcing has its place in research but I think it needs to be used carefully. I'm looking for good examples in cancer at the moment if anyone has anything they'd like to share.  I will place a link on the blog when this one is published later in the year.

I'm always positive about the new year even though I don't much care for New Year's Evening festivities.  I like to look forward, and this year is no different. This year I'm going to work towards a few more publications as well as getting some of my less nerdy works published.  I hope to explore some academic connections and play my role to get the new business going.  With some luck and hard work, I might even finish the book I started 18 months ago. 

Overall, I plan to write much more this year (as I do every year!), but this year, I MEAN it.  Ha, ha. We'll see