Monthly Archives: February 2012

New Strides in Stroke Prevention

Researchers have found a genetic mutation that can nearly double a person’s stroke risk. However, there’s good news too; this discovery could help doctors develop treatments and improve preventative care, so that fewer people need suffer the condition.

The gene, called HDAC9, produces a protein that is important to the development of muscle tissue and of the heart. A mutation in the gene, which occurs about 10 percent of the time, significantly increases a person’s risk of ischemic strokes, which account for about a third of all strokes. In an ischemic stroke, a blood clot forms in the brain, robbing it of oxygen needed to function.

Scientists are studying the HDAC9 mutation to try to use this new understanding of a mechanism behind strokes to work to treat it. Drugs exist now to block the effect of the gene, but because the mutation is newly discovered, it is not known if these drugs would work in stroke prevention, or what side effects they might have.

Although stroke is common among elderly patients and more likely in patients over 55, there’s a risk at any age. In addition to this genetic mutation, risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Untreated diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Excessive drinking
  • Obesity

Experts say that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented, and with emergency treatment it is often survivable. More than 7 million Americans are stroke survivors. If you have risk factors talk to your doctor about what you can do to keep yourself safe.


A common surgical procedure used to treat coronary artery disease may not be as helpful as doctors had believed. The insertion of a stent to hold open constricted blood vessels is an oft-used but risky treatment option, but now a new study says it offers no benefit over medical options.

In fact, some critics of the procedure say the principal advantage of using it is the income it generates for hospitals. As much as 40 percent of a hospital’s revenue can come from cardiac procedures, so doctors often find themselves pressured to perform stent implantations, chiefly a procedure called percutaneous coronary intervention. In PCI, a metal mesh tube is threaded through the arm or leg. When it is placed at the location of the blockage, it expands to hold the vessel open.

According to a recent analysis, however, over nearly five years, patients given medical treatments such as aspirin therapy or beta-blockers fared almost exactly as well as PCI patients. In fact, most candidates for PCI can be treated medically instead. This would save them thousands of dollars in lifetime costs.

Fighting Inflammation

Anti-inflammatory drugs are one of the most useful weapons in the modern medical arsenal. Many, however, have side effects that are undesirable or worse. Fortunately, there are natural inflammation fighters that have few if any detrimental side effects.

Inflammation is the body’s response to infection or injury. It is an important component of the immune response, but it can also be painful and debilitating, and in many cases reducing inflammation is an important part of maintaining function. Moreover, in some conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, an unwarranted immune response causes inflammation despite there being no infection or injury to respond to.

Vitamin D is a natural inflammation fighter. Your body naturally produces vitamin D if you get a lot of sunlight. It’s also found in many foods, including fatty fish such as salmon and catfish, eggs, and beef liver. In addition, most milk is vitamin D fortified.

Scientists now have a better understanding of how vitamin D works as an anti-inflammatory agent. In the body, the vitamin seeks out immune cells. Having found them, it biochemically instructs the immune system to hold off on any response. Vitamin D thus stops unneeded immune system activity.

Transplants Without Rejection

Researchers are making great strides in techniques for creating real tissue in the lab that can be transplanted without risk of rejection. This means patients needing transplants will not need to rely on antirejection drugs that compromise the immune system. The secret is to use stem cells, which can be obtained from bone marrow, to build organs that mimic, and are recognized by the body as, the patient’s own.

The process, called tissue engineering, uses a polymer framework to create a base for the cells to be grown on, shaping them into a suitable organ for transplant.

Now a new technique, called low-pressure foaming, uses ceramic materials in a vacuum to avoid problems with current methods using salt, which has to be carefully removed. The foaming technique results in interconnected pores and flexible scaffolds, which can be used in a variety of applications for various kinds of bone and muscle.

The scaffolds are ultimately reabsorbed into the body. Another benefit of this new technique is that the scaffolds produce can be engineered to degrade after a set amount of time, which varies according to the use and the expected recovery time.

Hard To Swallow

Almost one in 10 Americans experiences chronic difficulty swallowing. Most of these people are over 65, though it can happen to anyone. Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is a symptom of head and neck cancers, stroke, brain trauma, cerebral palsy, and of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases. Generally, it is due to the muscles of the esophagus being unable to move food towards the stomach.

This can lead to fatal complications. A number of dysphagic individuals, mostly elderly hospital patients, develop aspiration pneumonia, in which food or liquid ends up in the lungs. Untreated, this can quickly lead to suffocation.

Hospitals are starting to use assessment techniques to determine which patients are at risk for dysphagia. These techniques, including questionnaires administered to patients, allow institutions to take proactive steps to prevent dysphagia and complications that arise from it.

If you are having painful swallowing, particularly if it’s causing weight loss or affecting your enjoyment of food or your quality of life, contact your doctor.


Recently, there has been a surge in norovirus epidemics, particularly at schools and on cruise ships. Worse, four hospitals have reported outbreaks in recent weeks. Norovirus clusters are frequently found where people are in close quarters for an extended period of time. It can be traced to contaminated food but also spreads between people in crowded conditions. In fact, only about a quarter of norovirus-caused gastroenteritis comes from food.

Norovirus refers to any of a group of related microbes that attack the stomach and the intestines. Together, they cause 20 million cases of gastroenteritis in the U.S. each year. Norovirus is a common cause of food poisoning, responsible for 58 percent of foodborne illness. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and severe stomach cramps. Some people also experience fever and chills, headaches and muscle aches, and fatigue.

While these problems usually clear up after a day or two, gastroenteritis can be serious or even fatal in young or old people, or in people who are already sick with something else or with a chronic condition.

Researchers are working on a vaccine that could help halt future outbreaks. A norovirus vaccine has undergone limited human trials in Arizona. Scientists predict it will be available to the general public, most likely as a nasal spray, in about four to five years.

Predicting Asthma Risk

As a proud parent, you share the joy when your little one reaches various milestones. But your newborn developing quickly may not be a good thing. New studies suggest it may indicate an increased risk of asthma or asthma-like symptoms.

Doctors have already known that low birth weight is related to asthma–and that pregnant women who go off asthma medication risk low-birth-weight babies. Now a study tracking over 5,000 children from birth through toddlerhood found that unusually rapid weight gain in the three months following birth increased the odds of wheezing nearly one and a half times. Asthma can be difficult to diagnose in young children, but certain symptoms can be seen.

The difference was reported as independent of fetal growth, meaning that it held in children who had developed normally prenatally. In fact, no connection was found between rates of fetal development and asthma risk.

Childhood asthma sometimes goes away with age but in some cases persists in adults. It is exacerbated by certain living or working environments. It can be controlled with medications, but requires a doctor’s care.

Treatments for Parkinson’s

The neurodegenerative condition Parkinson’s disease affects almost a million Americans, including the actor Michael J. Fox, boxer Muhammad Ali and former Attorney General Janet Reno. As many as 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The condition is caused by damage to dopamine-producing cells in the brain. Scientists don’t know what causes this damage, though a protein called RGS4 has been implicated, and other studies are looking at a possible genetic factor.

There is no cure, so doctors focus on managing symptoms, especially the loss of motor control. Now researchers are learning more and more about possible treatments for the tremors associated with Parkinson’s. Weight training has been shown to help slow the loss of motor control in many patients. Tai chi also appears to have beneficial effects.

Scientists at the University of Illinois said that weight training exercises done for an hour twice a week showed improvement in symptoms right away. This improvement lasted more than two years. Patients at all stages of the condition benefited in the study.

Another exercise regiment that helps Parkinson’s patients is the Chinese style tai chi. This style focuses on gentle, flowing movement. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore say it has great potential as a treatment.

There is even some indication that exercise not only benefits patients directly, but can help boost the effectiveness of medications and other forms of treatment. While both weight training and tai chi help most patients, weight training is specifically good for stiffness, while tai chi especially helps with balance.


Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can be dangerous. It occurs when your body uses up glucose too fast or it gets into your bloodstream too slowly. Undereating can mean not enough glucose is available in the first place, and can also be a cause. Drinking alcohol significantly increases your risk for hypoglycemia.

Here are some signs you’re hypoglycemic:

  • Sudden weakness or jitteriness, particularly in the arms or legs.
  • Moodiness, or feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, angry or irritated. You may feel like you want to cry for no reason.
  • Breaking into a cold sweat.
  • Nausea and hunger.
  • Slurring and confusion, or spacing out.

If you have these symptoms, try eating something, especially if you’re diabetic and on insulin therapy. Sugary food will help in the short term but could cause the condition to recur, so eat something more balanced about 15 minutes later. Do not drive in this condition; if you’re drinking, stop. Hypoglycemia can also be a result of a serious illness, so if you’re experiencing these symptoms regularly, talk to a doctor.

How The Immune System Fights Viruses

Scientists have learned more about how the body fights infection. Immune cells called T killer cells have been observed to devour and destroy invading viruses. Scientists had previously thought these T killer cells were drawn to molecular patterns. While this is partly the case, we now know that in addition, cells infected by viruses summon T killers in their death throes.

They do this by releasing substances known as “alarmins,” particularly one called interleukin 33. Interleukin 33 is found in cells in the spleen, where T killers wait until they’re needed. As those cells die, interleukin 33 is released and lets the T killers know they are needed to cleanse the body of disease.

The T killers themselves, according to another study, have an off-duty phase. They go off-duty when they’re used to something. Cancers sometimes spread in part by acclimating, inducing the T killers to go off-duty. However, doctors are looking at ways to tag cancer cells to make them more visible to the immune system and get T killer cells to attack them.