Common herbal supplement can cause dangerous interactions with prescription drugs

St. John’s wort, the leading complementary and alternative treatment for depression in the United States, can be dangerous when taken with many commonly prescribed drugs, according to a study by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.The researchers reported that the herbal supplement can reduce the concentration of numerous drugs in the body, including oral contraceptive, blood thinners, cancer chemotherapy and blood pressure medications, resulting in impaired effectiveness and treatment failure.”Patients may have a false sense of safety with so-called ‘natural’ treatments like St. John’s wort,” said Sarah Taylor, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “And it is crucial for physicians to know the dangers of ‘natural’ treatments and to communicate the risks to patients effectively.” The study is published in the current online issue of The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.To determine how often S. John’s wort (SJW) was being prescribed or taken with other medications, the team conducted a retrospective analysis of nationally representative data collected by the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 1993 to 2010. The research team found the use of SJW in potentially harmful combinations in 28 percent of the cases reviewed.Possible drug interactions can include serotonin syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that causes high levels of the chemical serotonin to accumulate in your body, heart disease due to impaired efficacy of blood pressure medications or unplanned pregnancy due to contraceptive failure, Taylor said.Limitations of the study are that only medications recorded by the physician were analyzed. However, she said the rate of SJW interactions may actually be underestimated because the database did not include patients who were using SJW but did not tell their doctor.”Labeling requirements for helpful supplements such as St. John’s wort need to provide appropriate cautions and risk information,” Taylor said, adding that France has banned the use of St. John’s wort products and several other countries, including Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada, are in the process of including drug-herb interaction warnings on St. John’s wort products.”Doctors also need to be trained to always ask if the patient is taking any supplements, vitamins, minerals or herbs, especially before prescribing any of the common drugs that might interact with St. …

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Do elephants call ‘human!’? Low rumble alarm call in response to the sound of human voices

African elephants make a specific alarm call in response to the danger of humans, according to a new study of wild elephants in Kenya.Researchers from Oxford University, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom carried out a series of audio experiments in which recordings of the voices of the Samburu, a local tribe from North Kenya, were played to resting elephants. The elephants quickly reacted, becoming more vigilant and running away from the sound whilst emitting a distinctive low rumble.When the team, having recorded this rumble, played it back to a group of elephants they reacted in a similar way to the sound of the Samburu voices; running away and becoming very vigilant, perhaps searching for the potentially lethal threat of human hunters.The new research, recently reported in PLOS ONE, builds on previous Oxford University research showing that elephants call ‘bee-ware’ and run away from the sound of angry bees. Whilst the ‘bee’ and ‘human’ rumbling alarm calls might sound similar to our ears there are important differences at low (infrasonic) frequencies that elephants can hear but humans can’t.’Elephants appear to be able to manipulate their vocal tract (mouth, tongue, trunk and so on) to shape the sounds of their rumbles to make different alarm calls,’ said Dr Lucy King of Save the Elephants and Oxford University who led the study with Dr Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and colleagues.’We concede the possibility that these alarm calls are simply a by-product of elephants running away, that is, just an emotional response to the threat that other elephants pick up on,’ Lucy tells me. ‘On the other hand, we think it is also possible that the rumble alarms are akin to words in human language, and that elephants voluntarily and purposefully make those alarm calls to warn others about specific threats. Our research results here show that African elephant alarm calls can differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of that threat.’Elephant ‘human’ alarm call rumbleSignificantly, the reaction to the human alarm call included none of the head-shaking behaviour displayed by elephants hearing the bee alarm. When threatened by bees elephants shake their heads in an effort to knock the insects away as well as running — despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop a thick protective skin.Lucy explains: ‘Interestingly, the acoustic analysis done by Joseph Soltis at his Disney laboratory showed that the difference between the ”bee alarm rumble” and the ”human alarm rumble” is the same as a vowel-change in human language, which can change the meaning of words (think of ”boo” and ”bee”). Elephants use similar vowel-like changes in their rumbles to differentiate the type of threat they experience, and so give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds.’This collaborative research on how elephants react to and communicate about honeybees and humans is being used to reduce human-elephant conflict in Kenya. Armed with the knowledge that elephants are afraid of bees, Lucy and Save the Elephants have built scores of ‘beehive fences’ around local farms that protect precious fields from crop-raiding elephants.’In this way, local farmers can protect their families and livelihoods without direct conflict with elephants, and they can harvest the honey too for extra income,’ says Lucy. ‘Learning more about how elephants react to threats such as bees and humans will help us design strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict and protect people and elephants.’Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Oxford. The original article was written by Pete Wilton. …

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Action is needed now to lower the content of aluminium in infant formulas

Oct. 10, 2013 — New research from Keele University shows that infant formulas are still heavily contaminated with aluminium.In 2010 the group at Keele, headed by Professor Chris Exley, published a paper showing that the aluminium content of infant formulas was too high (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/10/63).The Keele group has now followed up this research with an even more extensive study looking at the 30 most popular brands of infant formula in the United Kingdom.The results show high levels of aluminium in each of the 30 infant formulas.In the publication the aluminium content of the infant formulas are listed from lowest to highest so that parents might choose to use a product with the lowest content of aluminium.Professor Exley said: “Clearly the manufacturers of infant formulas are not concerned about reducing their content of aluminium and the extensive use of aluminium-based packaging for infant formulas seems to confirm this.”There are no adequate criteria upon which to base a safety level for aluminium in infant formulas and for this reason it would be sensible to take action to reduce the level of aluminium to a lowest practicable level.”Since manufacturers are not willing to address the aluminium content of infant formulas it must now be time for the government, through the Food Standards Agency, to provide guidance on this matter and to indicate a maximum allowable concentration, for example, 50 ppb (50 mg/L) aluminium in the product at point of use, as a precautionary step to protect infants against chronic aluminium intoxication during the earliest weeks, months and years of their lives.”The new paper is published by BMC Pediatrics.

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Disappearance of coral reefs, drastically altered marine food web on the horizon

Aug. 5, 2013 — If history’s closest analog is any indication, the look of the oceans will change drastically in the future as the coming greenhouse world alters marine food webs and gives certain species advantages over others.Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, paleobiologist Richard Norris and colleagues show that the ancient greenhouse world had few large reefs, a poorly oxygenated ocean, tropical surface waters like a hot tub, and food webs that did not sustain the abundance of large sharks, whales, seabirds, and seals of the modern ocean. Aspects of this greenhouse ocean could reappear in the future if greenhouse gases continue to rise at current accelerating rates.The researchers base their projections on what is known about the “greenhouse world” of 50 million years ago when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were much higher than those that have been present during human history. Their review article appears in an Aug. 2 special edition of the journal Science titled “Natural Systems in Changing Climates.”For the past million years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have never exceeded 280 parts per million, but industrialization, forest clearing, agriculture, and other human activities have rapidly increased concentrations of CO2 and other gases known to create a “greenhouse” effect that traps heat in the atmosphere. For several days in May 2013, CO2 levels exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in human history and that milestone could be left well behind in the next decades. At its current pace, Earth could recreate the CO2 content of the atmosphere in the greenhouse world in just 80 years.In the greenhouse world, fossils indicate that CO2 concentrations reached 800-1,000 parts per million. Tropical ocean temperatures reached 35º C (95º F), and the polar oceans reached 12°C (53°F) — similar to current ocean temperatures offshore San Francisco. There were no polar ice sheets. Scientists have identified a “reef gap” between 42 and 57 million years ago in which complex coral reefs largely disappeared and the seabed was dominated by piles of pebble-like single-celled organisms called foraminifera.”The ‘rainforests-of-the-sea’ reefs were replaced by the ‘gravel parking lots’ of the greenhouse world,” said Norris.The greenhouse world was also marked by differences in the ocean food web with large parts of the tropical and subtropical ocean ecosystems supported by minute picoplankton instead of the larger diatoms typically found in highly productive ecosystems today. …

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A promising target to treat asthma

July 24, 2013 — An enzyme known for its role in heart disease may well be a promising target to treat asthma. Researchers from the University of Iowa have found that the enzyme, called CaMKII, is linked to the harmful effects of oxidation in the respiratory tract, triggering asthmatic symptoms. The finding could lead to the development of a drug that would target the CaMKII enzyme, the researchers say.Asthma affects billions of people worldwide. In the United States, 8.5 percent of the population has asthma, which causes 3,000 deaths and more than $56 billion annually in medical and lost work costs, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite its toll on health and productivity, treatment options remain confined to steroids, which have harmful, even life-threatening, side effects for those with severe cases.Current treatments don’t work well, noted Mark Anderson, professor and chair in internal medicine at the UI and a co-corresponding author on the paper, published July 24 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.”It’s a kind of an epidemic without a clear, therapeutic option,” Anderson says. “The take-home message is that inhibiting CaMKII appears to be an effective anti-oxidant strategy for treating allergic asthma.”Anderson and co-corresponding author Isabella Grumbach knew from previous work that the CaMKII enzyme played a role in the oxidation of heart muscle cells, which can lead to heart disease and heart attacks. The scientists surmised the same enzyme may affect oxidation in the respiratory system as well.The team first tested the enzyme in airway muscle cells, but to little effect. They then tried to block the enzyme in the airway lining (epithelial) cells. They noticed that mice with the blocked enzyme had less oxidized CaMKII, no airway muscle constriction and no asthma symptoms. Similarly, mice without the blocked enzyme showed high “oxidative stress,” meaning lots of oxidized enzymes in the epithelial cells, a constricted airway and asthma symptoms.”[The study] suggests that these airway lining cells are really important for asthma, and they’re important because of the oxidative properties of CaMKII,” says Anderson, whose primary appointment is in the Carver College of Medicine. …

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Daydreaming simulated by computer model

July 12, 2013 — Scientists have created a virtual model of the brain that daydreams like humans do.Researchers created the computer model based on the dynamics of brain cells and the many connections those cells make with their neighbors and with cells in other brain regions. They hope the model will help them understand why certain portions of the brain work together when a person daydreams or is mentally idle. This, in turn, may one day help doctors better diagnose and treat brain injuries.”We can give our model lesions like those we see in stroke or brain cancer, disabling groups of virtual cells to see how brain function is affected,” said senior author Maurizio Corbetta, MD, the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “We can also test ways to push the patterns of activity back to normal.”The study is now available online in The Journal of Neuroscience.The model was developed and tested by scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and several other European universities including ETH Zurich, Switzerland; University of Oxford, United Kingdom; Institute of Advanced Biomedical Technologies, Chieti, Italy; and University of Lausanne, Switzerland.Scientists first recognized in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the brain stays busy even when it’s not engaged in mental tasks. Researchers have identified several “resting state” brain networks, which are groups of different brain regions that have activity levels that rise and fall in sync when the brain is at rest. They have also linked disruptions in networks associated with brain injury and disease to cognitive problems in memory, attention, movement and speech.The new model was developed to help scientists learn how the brain’s anatomical structure contributes to the creation and maintenance of resting state networks. The researchers began with a process for simulating small groups of neurons, including factors that decrease or increase the likelihood that a group of cells will send a signal.”In a way, we treated small regions of the brain like cognitive units: not as individual cells but as groups of cells,” said Gustavo Deco, PhD, professor and head of the Computational Neuroscience Group in Barcelona. …

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Parental divorce in childhood is linked to raised inflammation in adulthood

July 11, 2013 — People who experience parental divorce during childhood have higher levels of an inflammatory marker in the blood which is known to predict future health, according to new research from UCL.The study, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that children who experienced the breakdown in their parents’ relationship before the age of 16, regardless of whether their parents were married or not, had 16% higher levels of C-reactive protein at age 44. C-reactive protein is a marker of inflammation measured in blood samples.Long-term raised C-reactive protein is a known risk factor for diseases such as coronary heart disease and type II diabetes. This study is based on data from 7,462 people in the 1958 National Child Development Study, an on-going longitudinal study which has followed a large group of people since their birth in 1958.The authors also looked at why this relationship might exist. They found that the relationship between parental divorce and later inflammation was mainly explained by adolescent material disadvantage and educational attainment, although the specific mechanisms remain unclear. In particular, those who experienced parental separation before the age of 16 were more likely to be materially disadvantaged in adolescence and had lower educational qualifications by adulthood, compared to children who grew up with both parents.Dr Rebecca Lacey, Research Associate in the UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and lead author of the study, said: “Our study suggests that it is not parental divorce or separation per se which increases the risk of later inflammation but that it is other social disadvantages, such as how well the child does in education, which are triggered by having experienced parental divorce which are important.”This study underlines the importance of supporting separating families in order to help reduce the risk of later disease.The study concludes “pathways through education appear to be particularly important and supporting children through education may be beneficial.” This work was funded by the European Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

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Findings emphasize importance of vitamin D in pregnancy

June 22, 2013 — Pregnant women pass low levels of vitamin D on to their babies at almost three times the extent previously thought, according to new research carried out at London’s Kingston University.While current studies suggest that around a fifth (19 per cent) of a newborn baby’s supply or deficiency of vitamin D comes directly from its mother, experts from Kingston’s School of Life Sciences have discovered that the figure is, in fact, almost three times as high at 56 per cent. The results have been revealed using a new measuring technique, developed in the laboratories at Kingston, which is able to examine eight different forms of vitamin D in greater detail for the first time.The study, just published in Nutrition Journal, focused on 120 samples taken from 60 Greek mothers and their babies. The research was conducted with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. Although the Mediterranean nation enjoys more hours of sunshine than the United Kingdom, the research revealed that many of the mothers had low levels of vitamin D, suggesting that what they ate was an equally important source.Professor Declan Naughton, who headed the Kingston University research team, said the findings made it more important than ever that mothers-to-be received the key nutrient not only through sunlight but also through foods such as oily fish. “The impact that mothers deficient in vitamin D have on their babies’ levels is a much bigger problem than we thought,” Professor Naughton said. “Maintaining good supplies during pregnancy is clearly of vital importance for both mothers’ and babies’ long term health.”Lack of the vitamin in pregnant women has been linked to diabetes and increased rates of caesarean section births, while babies can be smaller than average. In children, the deficiency can cause rickets — a soft bone disease.Vitamin D plays an important role in maintaining good levels of calcium and phosphate which help form healthy bones and teeth. The two main forms are vitamin D3, which primarily comes from sunlight, and D2 which is found in a small number of foods including egg yolk, mushrooms, farmed salmon, mackerel, sardines and fortified bread and cereals. Processes in the body convert the vitamin into what is known as the circulating form — the type commonly measured in routine blood tests — followed by the active form — the type that promotes calcium absorption, cell growth and immunity.Professor Naughton and his team found that the type of vitamin D commonly measured in blood tests was not as reliable an indicator of vitamin D activity as other strands. They went on to discover that two epimer forms, previously thought to be unimportant, influenced levels in babies. …

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Genetics of dyslexia and language impairment unraveled

June 13, 2013 — A new study of the genetic origins of dyslexia and other learning disabilities could allow for earlier diagnoses and more successful interventions, according to researchers at Yale School of Medicine. Many students now are not diagnosed until high school, at which point treatments are less effective.The study is published online and in the July print issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics. Senior author Dr. Jeffrey R. Gruen, professor of pediatrics, genetics, and investigative medicine at Yale, and colleagues analyzed data from more than 10,000 children born in 1991-1992 who were part of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) conducted by investigators at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.Gruen and his team used the ALSPAC data to unravel the genetic components of reading and verbal language. In the process, they identified genetic variants that can predispose children to dyslexia and language impairment, increasing the likelihood of earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.Dyslexia and language impairment are common learning disabilities that make reading and verbal language skills difficult. Both disorders have a substantial genetic component, but despite years of study, determining the root cause had been difficult.In previous studies, Gruen and his team found that dopamine-related genes ANKK1 and DRD2 are involved in language processing. In further non-genetic studies, they found that prenatal exposure to nicotine has a strong negative affect on both reading and language processing. They had also previously found that a gene called DCDC2 was linked to dyslexia.In this new study, Gruen and colleagues looked deeper within the DCDC2 gene to pinpoint the specific parts of the gene that are responsible for dyslexia and language impairment. They found that some variants of a gene regulator called READ1 (regulatory element associated with dyslexia1) within the DCDC2 gene are associated with problems in reading performance while other variants are strongly associated with problems in verbal language performance.Gruen said these variants interact with a second dyslexia risk gene called KIAA0319. …

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Medieval leprosy genomes shed light on disease’s history

June 13, 2013 — An international team of scientists reconstructed a dozen medieval and modern leprosy genomes — suggesting a European origin for the North American leprosy strains found in armadillos and humans, and a common ancestor of all leprosy bacteria within the last 4000 years.It is the first time scientists have reconstructed an ancient genome without a reference sequence (de novo) due to the extraordinary preservation of the medieval pathogen’s DNA. This finding indicates that ancient bacterial DNA may survive in some cases much beyond the one million year boundary suggested for vertebrate DNA.Leprosy, a devastating chronic disease caused by the bacterial pathogen Mycobacterium leprae, was prevalent in Europe until the late Middle Ages. Today, the disease is found in 91 countries worldwide with about 200,000 new infections reported annually.To retrace the history of the disease, an international team of scientists, led by Johannes Krause from Tübingen University and Stewart Cole from EPFL Lausanne, have reconstructed entire genome sequences of M. leprae bacteria from five medieval skeletons that were excavated in Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom as well as seven biopsy samples from modern patients.The researchers compared the medieval European M. leprae genomes with 11 worldwide modern strains, including the seven biopsy strains, revealing that all M. leprae strains share a common ancestor that existed within the last 4000 years. This is congruent with the earliest osteological evidence for the disease in the archaeological records dated to 2000 BC from India. The genome comparisons indicate a remarkable genomic conservation of the bacteria during the past 1,000 years. The team of scientists could furthermore show that M. leprae genotypes in medieval Europe are today found in the Middle East, whereas other medieval strains show a striking similarity to modern strains found today in North American armadillos and leprosy patients suggesting a Eu-ropean origin of leprosy in the Americas.One skeleton from Denmark (Jorgen 625) showed extraordinary preservation of the pathogen DNA, allowing a genome reconstruction without using a modern reference sequence, which was never done before for an ancient organism’s genome. …

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How disease mutations affect the Parkin protein

May 31, 2013 — Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom have determined the crystal structure of Parkin, a protein found in cells that when mutated can lead to a hereditary form of Parkinson’s disease. The results, which are published in The EMBO Journal, define the position of many of the mutations linked to hereditary Parkinson’s disease and explain how these alterations may affect the stability and function of the protein. The findings may in time reveal how the activity of Parkin is affected in patients with this rare but debilitating type of Parkinson’s disease.Share This:Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects more than seven million people worldwide. Most cases of the disease occur in older individuals and are sporadic (non-familial), but around 15% of patients develop symptoms early in life because of inherited mutations in a limited number of disease genes. Why Parkin mutations are especially detrimental in nerve cells is not fully understood, but previous research indicates that Parkin regulates the function of mitochondria, the organelles that generate energy in the cell. Some disease mutations in the PARKIN gene can be easily explained since they lead to loss or instability of the Parkin protein, but many others are more difficult to understand.Around 50% of cases of familial recessive Parkinson’s disease are caused by mutations in the PARKIN gene, which encodes a protein that belongs to the RBR ubiquitin ligase enzyme family. Enzymes in this family couple other proteins in the cell to a molecule called ubiquitin, a step that can alter the function or stability of these target proteins. To understand how Parkin and other RBR ubiquitin ligase enzymes achieve this, EMBO Young Investigator David Komander and his coworker Tobias Wauer crystallized a form of human Parkin and used X-ray diffraction patterns to determine how the Parkin protein chain folds into a three-dimensional structure. Their experiments revealed an in-built control mechanism for Parkin activity, which is lost in the presence of some of the mutations responsible for Parkinson’s disease. Wauer and Komander pinpointed amino acids of Parkin with key functions in ubiquitin ligase activity that are sensitive to blocking by reagents previously characterized in their laboratory. …

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