Dietary supplements – less regulated than dog food

In case you didn’t already guess from the title, one thing that really gets me going is when people or companies claim that a dietary supplement or alternative therapy is ‘safe’ because it’s ‘natural.’  Not only can dietary supplements be ineffective, but they could actually be harmful.  The problem is that these compounds are not regulated by any oversight agency in the United States.  Any yahoo can bottle an herb and write pretty much whatever they want on that bottle’s label.  A recent article published in Nature got me going on this topic.  Titled Buyer Beware, the article ran through a case-study of the so-called anti-ageing miracle drug, reservatrol.  It started when some well-meaning researchers published preliminary results that reservatrol (isolated from grape skins) may improve and extend the lives of some lab animals.  Since we’re all looking for the fountain of youth, the media ran with it.  A decade later, the true effects of reservatrol on lifespan and other health issues is still not certain and its role in the complex aging process is not understood.  But this didn’t stop unscrupulous individuals and companies from leaping on this opportunity to market a new anti-aging miracle.  To make it worse, the FDA (the agency that regulates drug manufacturers to (usually) make sure their products are safe and effective) is under congressional mandate to NOT regulate the dietary supplement/vitamin industry.  In a perfect example of strategic naming of a bill to hide its true purpose (see the PATRIOT act), the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 actually prevented the FDA from regulating the dietary supplement/vitamin industry.  So that means not only can companies market products with false/unproven claims, there is no watchdog there making sure these same products are even safe. Continue reading

Stick with plain old soap

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release about triclosan  – an ubiquitous antibiotic found in tons of personal care products, including deodorant, toothpaste, hand and facial cleansers, mouthwash, and other household cleaners.  I have long tried to avoid purchasing products like this that were spiked with antibiotics – just on a gut instinct that it can’t be good for our environment to be flushing lots of antibiotics down the drain.  Continue reading

A tasty new molecular sandwich

Many people are vaguely familiar with the basic concepts concerning DNA: it is the genetic material in every one of our cells that make us who we are.  We inherit our DNA from our parents, who in turn inherited it from their parents, etc etc.  Most people also understand the basic structure of DNA: it is a very LONG sequence of nucleotides, referred to as C, G, T, A. If we think of DNA as a necklace, and the C, G, T, and A as beads on this necklace, it is the specific sequence of these C’s, G’s, T’s, and A’s on this necklace that makes us all unique.  This may be where many non-scientists’ understanding of DNA ends.  Continue reading

Autism follow-up: first steps toward a genetic map

Here’s some real science about the cause of autism you can sink your teeth into (as opposed to the rumors and fear-mongering created by the misguided tin-foil hatters who promote the link between vaccines and autism…too harsh?). The Autism-Genome Project just published its second paper about the potential genetics behind autism.  Funded by internation, private, and public partners, the AGP is a consortium of over 50 research centers from Europe, Canada, and the US.  As family studies have demonstrated that autism-spectrum disorder appears to be an inherited trait (ie, one that is genetically passed down through families) the AGP aims to discover the specific genetic factors that cause autism.  The AGP just published an initial paper in the journal Nature titled Functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders. The study examined the genomes (the entirety of an organism’s hereditary information) of 996 individuals diagnosed with autism as well as a control group of 1,287 individuals who are not autistic.  They found that overall, autistic individuals were more likely to have a higher number of copy number variations within their genomes than the non-autistic individuals.  Copy number variations exist throughout the human genome, and are simply a stretch of the DNA that has been duplicated once or multiple times.  Some of these genetic variants pointed to genes previously implicated in autism or other related intellectual disabilities.  However, many of these genetic variants were found in networks of genes involved in more basic cellular functions, such as cellular proliferation (cell growth and division).

Interestingly, although autistic individuals did have a higher number of copy number variations than the control group, each of the copy number variations found were quite rare.  Unfortunately we can’t point a finger now at a specific gene, or even a specific gene family/network, as a single cause of autism.  This seems to make sense, as autism is really a spectrum of different disabilities with differing levels of severity.  If there is so much variability in the symptoms of autism, we could expect there would be an equal amount of variability in the underlying genetic basis for this disease.  So, while this new research is important from a genetics and scientific point-of-view, the potential applications of this information are off in the distant future.

The vaccine-autism link: bad information for scared parents

Two articles published in the New York Times caught my interest this month (3 Rulings Find No Link to Vaccines
and Autism
and Court Says Vaccine Not to Blame for Autism).  The articles described the dismissal of court cases where parents were suing vaccine manufacturers for giving their children autism.  Some parents claimed that a preservative containing mercury, Thimersol, caused autism. Others claimed that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction (and gastrointenstinal dysnfunction has links to autism).  This made me curious – where did the whole MMR-causes-autism hypothesis come from?  What science is there on either sides of this debate?  And where does the science stand now? If you just want the summary, here you go: there is no conclusive evidence that MMR causes autism.  There is lots of evidence that it in fact DOES NOT cause autism.  Read on for more information on some of the original science to arm yourself against the shucksters who perpetrate this myth to prey on desperate parents.  While this is not an exhaustive review of every paper published on this topic, I tried to pick representative papers and looked at only those articles published in peer-reviewed journals (a basic and important standard for scientific research). Continue reading