All posts by Barbara Payne

Calling niacin to arms in the battle against cholesterol

The belief that controlling cholesterol is a key to atherosclerosis and heart disease has had its share of supporters and detractors over the years. Researchers have focused on several different approaches–nutrition, drugs that lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels by blocking absorption or by affecting production in the liver, and drugs that raise “good” (HDL) levels. HDL itself is considered a potent weapon for lowering LDL.

Apparently niacin, a standard everyday B vitamin, has long been known to help with cholesterol issues, but it hasn’t been widely recommended because it can be hard for some patients to tolerate. Now a new study finds–not conclusively, but enough to raise a stir–that niacin, when used in combination with statins, is more effective at reversing plaque buildup in the arteries than another drug called Zetia. Heart researchers are encouraged about niacin’s ability to improve artery constriction and plan to do more studies. [The really ugly thing pictured on the right is a seriously diseased artery photographed post-mortem.]

Heart disease has been the target of so many hopeful yet ineffective solutions. Perfectly reasonable doctors standing on opposite ends of the spectrum on various issues. What’s a poor heart patient to do?

How long have we heard about the magic of antioxidants? Well, apparently they’re virtually useless when taken as a pill. Not long ago a bunch of experts weighed in after results of a 9-year study showed no appreciable improvement in those who took those types of supplements. But heart patients who switched to a healthier diet containing those same vitamin and anti-oxidant substances did improve.

No telling what miracles we will continue to discover as we forge ahead using nature’s own bounty to combat our ills.

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Red wine leads to nitric oxide

Oh, happy day! They’re telling us again how good for us red wine is. This time a benefit has been found to start even before wine’s antioxidant protective qualities have had a chance to kick in. The polyphenols in the wine help the stomach convert other substances (such as nitrites) into–guess what?–nitric oxide (NO), which helps the stomach relax and aids digestion.

Of course this article on the benefits of red wine was published in Wine Spectator–not exactly a scientific journal. But the American Heart Association isn’t arguing too much about it. They do, however, point out that red wine’s polyphenols (also present in apples, berries, and onions) don’t need the alcohol part of the equation to be effective at producing NO.

Hey, I have no problem imbibing fully alcoholic wine to get the many benefits. Just keep that research comin’…

Image credit: AntiOXidant 2008

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Carbon monoxide the new nitric oxide?

Sounds crazy, since carbon monoxide (CO) has long been known as a poisonous gas–it’s one of the substances in cigarettes that requires a warning on the package. But a new theory holds that CO may have, in very reduced and controlled doses, protective medical benefits that are not unlike some of those that nitric oxide provides.

The National Institutes of Health have just awarded $1.4 million to Beth Israel Deaconess medical center to study the underlying biology of carbon monoxide. When a grad student researcher there began 10 years ago to study the effects of an enzyme that breaks down a substance in the human body and then the body itself produces CO as a byproduct. He was curious as to what potential benefit carbon monoxide might be providing. According to the article, that researcher and other scientist:

“…found that breathing the gas for an hour at about 5 to 10 percent of a fatal exposure has beneficial effects in animals with a range of illnesses, from malaria to cardiovascular disease. While its actions are only partly understood, the gas seems to play a role in controlling inflammation, regulating cell death, and promoting repair and renewal.”

Much work remains to be done, but results so far are promising. The goal will be to create a drug that works the way CO does, but doesn’t suffer the stigma of carbon monoxide as a poisoning agent.It’s always exciting to see researchers looking at the natural processes of the body for clues on making human intervention more effective.

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Nitric oxide for swine flu

No one said how well it worked, but some doctors are reported to have tried giving patients with severe cases of swine flu doses of nitric oxide (NO) to help their blood vessels expand and work better, and then turning them upside down in a special bed to help their lungs work better.

Doctors in Australia and New Zealand even started treating severe cases with an aggressive, unusual treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). With this, doctors withdraw patients’ blood and put it through a machine that removes carbon dioxide and then incorporates oxygen before returning the blood to the patients.

In Canada and Mexico, according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), more use was made of nitric oxide for severe swine flu cases among mainly healthy young adults and adolescents:

On average, swine flu victims required “12 days of mechanical ventilation and frequent use of rescue therapies such as high-frequency oscillatory ventilation, prone positioning, neuromuscular blockade, and inhaled nitric oxide” (ibid.)

I’m bet the day’s around the corner when we’ll have home inhalers with NO, or maybe a pill like aspirin we can just pop when breathing gets bad.

the CDC’s top influenza doc talking about H1N1.

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NIH confirms flu vaccine does the trick

The NIH study of the newest H1N1 investigational flu vaccine has confirmed–in spades–the positive results of an earlier industry study. It looks like recipients of the new flu vaccine will have a significant immune response in just 8 to 10 days after injection. And happily this new approach requires only one shot, instead of a shot-plus-booster combination.

They should be starting to offer the vaccine to Americans in mid-October. Best part is, it works really well with those 18-64 (where the biggest vulnerability to this flu is–especially pregnant women), and no side effects except it hurts where you get the shot.

Since I have been so deeply mired in other projects for the past couple of months, I didn’t realize they were still expecting a pandemic flu attack. And though they’re saying “a long and busy flu season,” it looks like fears have abated about not enough flu vaccine and not enough oomph to the antiviral drugs that exist.

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Allowed ozone levels hurt healthy lungs

The amount of penetration of UV relative to al...Image via Wikipedia

Not good news. If you feel like you get winded sooner than you ought to, you won’t be surprised to hear that more than one study has determined that what the EPA has called acceptable levels of ozone are clearly detrimental to normal healthy breathing. Several hours of living in those levels will affect how forcibly a person can exhale (exhaling is the process in people with emphysema that continues to deteriorate over time–I know because my mom lived with it for 10 years) and can damage overall lung function.

Hard to say whether this is worse news for perfectly healthy people–who will be pissed off at being damaged through no bad habits of their own–or for those of us who’ve suffered lung damage from other sources such as heart disease or asthma. Even the EPA isn’t arguing about the truth of some of the predicted damage, though they’re hedging on other aspects.

Are we destined to become a nation of less-than-vigorous citizens? Most of our scientists know we need to change our ways to save our air. Let us pray we can all work together to find new ways to cherish our precious natural resources.

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Getting nanotechnology in perspective

As with most things, everybody has an agenda when it comes to nano, according to the former CEO of a Chicago nanomaterials manufacturer. The people who make the materials are concerned of course with profitability and with observing all the laws and regulations governing worker safety. The scientists want funding for research and legislation requiring strict standards of safety. The universities want to encourage entrepreneurs, help take nano from lab to market but with a strong eye to keeping their government funding coming.

IIT recently started a collaboration between its Center for Ethics in the Professions and its Center for Entrepreneurship to invite local nano businesses to keep a continuing dialogue going, and to find ways to raise awareness among professionals and the public about the realities of nano manufacturing.

The Center’s director Vivian Weil recently invited a group to meet on IIT’s campus and talk about the best way to collaborate to continue building the library and use it to promote awareness.
The nano executives who attended this first “lunch and learn” session a few weeks ago talked about the safety precautions automatically put into practice for nano-manufacturing, as required by existing regulations. The Center for Ethics thas researched a significant body of knowledge about the nano industry and ethics and has compiled and cataloged it into a library.

The nanomaterials experts hastened to point out that nano-biotech is a whole different story. For things that humans might consume or inject or otherwise ingest, considerations are different. So there must be a unique set of standards that will be completely different from the materials side.

One of the execs pointed out that nanomaterials of various sorts have been in use for decades. It’s just that no one called them nano, and the press hadn’t yet picked up on the scare tactics often used to make scientific stories “news.” Two products in particular are the carbon black used in women’s eyeliner. It’s the only material that will make eyeliner truly black—without it, the best they can do is medium gray. And another nanomaterial used in tires makes them more stable and longer lasting.

He said members of the public would never be willing to give up these qualities because the additives were labeled nano and “dangerous.” Just as with asbestos, which can make people fatally ill even up to several decades after they’re exposed, people who are not sick from it will have no part of the cost and inconvenience of getting rid of the asbestos. They say they don’t care if something “might” happen 30, 40 or 50 years from now. It’s the same with nano.

To check out the resources at IIT’s Center for Ethics in the Professions, visit the NanoEthicsBank and their beta site Nano Portal for Industry and their NanoEthicsBank blog.

Viagra uses nitric oxide to save newborn babies with breathing issues

Well, we already figured out that nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels, plays a big role in male erections. It’s a component of some erectile dysfunction drugs. Now they’ve found that sildenafil (viagra) which releases nitric oxide can be used to help newborn infants with breathing problems.

Apparently nitric oxide gas has traditionally been used to help little ones breathe, and it’s very expensive or simply not available. This is a dramatic discovery for babies in developing countries, which is where 90% of the babies in the world with this problem live, and where they cannot normally afford the gas. In one study babies who received sildenafil improved oxygenation and had a 92% survival rate–as opposed to 49% for babies receiving placebo.

The FDA hasn’t approved this use for the drug. And researchers are calling for much more precise studies. But, at $5 to $10 a dose, we’re talking an eminently affordable way to save lives within the first few days of those babies’ lives.

Stem cells to produce synthetic blood

British scientists are starting a project that promises to have human beings receiving injections of infection-free synthetic blood within 3 years. The goal is to find embryonic stem cells of type “O” which can be used for any other blood type and encourage them to grow into mature, oxygen-carrying blood cells in unlimited amounts.

Imagine a day when there are no more crises that require people to go and donate blood. When every operation or accident can be handled without fear of infection from donated blood. Imagine that blood carrying our marvelous nitric oxide happily along to its many tasks.

It seems we are gradually discovering the millions of miracles that make up life as we know it. And one day not so far in the future our children will look back on these times of radical surgeries and brutal chemotherapy and other drug treatments as primitive indeed.