Category Archives: Health

Traffic jams can hurt the heart

Anyone who has experienced Los Angeles gridlock likely can attest that traffic may cause one’s blood pressure to rise. But UC Irvine researchers have found that, beyond the aggravation caused by fellow drivers, traffic-related air pollution presents serious heart health risks — not just for rush hour commuters, but for those who live and work nearby.

Research by UC Irvine joint M.D./Ph.D. student Sharine Wittkopp contributes to evidence that the increased air pollution generated by vehicle congestion causes blood pressure to rise and arteries to inflame, increasing incidents of heart attack and stroke for people who reside near traffic-prone areas.

“While the impact of traffic-related pollution on people with chronic lung diseases is well known, the link to adverse heart impacts has been less described,” said Wittkopp.

Her research project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, focused on residents of a Los Angeles senior housing community who had coronary artery disease.

Study participants spend the vast majority of their time at home, which meant they had prolonged exposure to traffic-related air pollution at the site. Because of their age and preexisting heart conditions, they were thought to be more vulnerable to small, day-to-day variations in air quality.

“They are really in the thick of it,” Wittkopp said. “They are the ones that are going to suffer the most, and who are the least likely to be resilient.”

Up to now, most studies on the impacts of air pollution have focused on its effects over much larger populations, with difficulty capturing accurate exposures and short-term changes. Wittkopp and her team wanted to look at how daily fluctuations in traffic and air quality would affect those residing in the immediate vicinity of congested roadways.

The research team, led by advisor Ralph Delfino, associate professor and vice chair for research and graduate studies in the Department of Epidemiology at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, set up air quality monitors at the residences of the study participants. They looked for daily and weekly changes in traffic-related pollution such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

What they found: “Blood pressure went up with increased traffic pollutants, and EKG changes showed decreased blood flow to the heart,” Wittkopp said.

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Do gut bacteria rule our minds?

Gut Bacteria

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity.

In an article published this week in the journal BioEssays, researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way.

Bacterial species vary in the nutrients they need. Some prefer fat, and others sugar, for instance. But they not only vie with each other for food and to retain a niche within their ecosystem — our digestive tracts — they also often have different aims than we do when it comes to our own actions

Read more about the manipulative bacteria in our gut

Making Huge Strides for Mobility

This exoskeleton, developed by UC Berkeley professor Homayoon Kazerooni and his team, helps people suffering from spinal cord injuries to walk again.

“Many paraplegics are not in a situation to afford a $100,000 device, and insurance companies don’t pay for these devices,” Kazerooni said. “Our job as engineers is to make something people can use.”

To make his exoskeleton affordable, he used the simplest possible technology: a computer and batteries in a backpack, actuators at the hips, and a pair of crutches with buttons that activate an exoskeleton that fits around the legs. The crutches provide stability, an important consideration for paraplegics navigating streets and sidewalks.

“The key is independence for these people,” he said. “I want them to get up in the morning and go to work, go to the bathroom, stand at a bar and have a beer.”

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The squishiness of cancer cells

Cells are tiny, but what they can reveal about our health is profound.

A misshapen nucleus is bad news. For any given cell, the nucleus — the home of most of a cell’s genetic material — generally takes a fairly consistent shape. But when things go wrong and disease takes hold, the nucleus can become deformed.

UCLA’s Amy Rowat explains how an enlarged nucleus is a telltale sign of something gone awry. Corrupted cells with cancerous leanings take on a different texture to healthy cells. They are softer and more malleable, or, as Amy puts it, more “squishy.”

Her research investigates the texture and squishiness of cells in our body, which can have a huge impact on treatments for cancer and genetic disorders. Using tiny instruments, this change in cellular flexibility can be used to diagnose disease, and could one day help determine which treatments might be most suitable for each patient.

While the minutia of a nucleus may initially seem too tiny to focus on if we’re seeking to understand something as complex as cancer, the ‘squishiness’ of a cell may open up a vast array of innovations and breakthroughs. The significance of basic research is just as consequential as applied research. It seeks to answer larger, fundamental questions and offers the possibility of finding answers with wide ranging effects. Sometimes starting with a broader set of questions can lead to a variety of discoveries whose full impact cannot be known at the outset. A collaboration with the UCLA medical school means Rowat’s work could have a meaningful clinical impact on the study and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

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The Next Frontier of Medicine


Following your gut takes on a whole new meaning as scientists find relationships between the brain and gut bacteria.

The next frontier of medicine isn’t in the depths of an Amazon jungle or in an air-conditioned lab; it’s in the rich and mysterious bacterial swamp of your gut. Long viewed as an enemy within, bacteria in the body have been subjected to a century-long war in which antibiotics have been the medical weapon of choice. But today, the scientific consensus about our body’s relationship with the trillions of microbes that call it home—collectively known as the microbiome—is changing dramatically. From potentially shaping our personalities to fighting obesity, the bacteria in our bellies play a much stronger role in our overall health than we once thought.

Developments in sequencing technology in the last decade have allowed scientists to better understand gut bacteria, and recent studies have shed light on how our digestive systems may mold brain structure when we’re young and influence our moods, feelings, and behavior when we’re adults. Scientists experimenting on mice have found links between gut bacteria and conditions similar to autism and anxiety in humans.

While it’s still early, the implications of better understanding how gut bacteria impacts our minds and bodies could change the way doctors treat myriad conditions, says Michael A. Fischbach, a microbiologist at UC San Francisco (UCSF). “If we use history as a guide, a lot of ideas probably won’t work out,” Fischbach says. “But even if one of them does, it’s a huge deal.”

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A (super cute) defender against asthma and allergies

UCSF-led study found that a child’s risk for developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household. It has to do with the type of dust indoor/outdoor dogs carry in.

The results were obtained in studies of mice challenged with allergens after earlier exposure to dust from homes with dogs, but the results also are likely to explain the reduced allergy risk among children raised with dogs from birth.

The scientists also identified a specific bacterial species (Lactobacillus johnsonii) within the gut that is critical to protecting the airways against both allergens and viral respiratory infection. When they fed this bacteria alone to mice, they found it could prevent airway inflammation due to allergens or even respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. Severe RSV infection in infancy is associated with elevated asthma risk.

[Image: Tasuku and his BFF, a french bulldog named Muu.]

Herding cells…with electricity!

Herding cells
Herding cells

Researchers at UC Berkeley have managed to use an electric field to herd a flock of cells.

At the moment, It’s still a very blunt tool, but the scientists hope it can be refined and used to help wounds heal. This is an exciting step in the direction of “smart bandages” — using an electrical stimulation to help heal wounds. (The researchers used the epithelial cells, the same cells that bind together to form skin, kidneys and other organs.)

Electricity has been used before to direct individual cells (the technical term for this is galvanotaxis), but how it influences the collective motion of cells was still unclear.

“The ability to govern the movement of a mass of cells has great utility as a scientific tool in tissue engineering,” said study senior author Michel Maharbiz, UC Berkeley associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences. “Instead of manipulating one cell at a time, we could develop a few simple design rules that would provide a global cue to control a collection of cells.”

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