Immunology Series – Part 1: What Actually is Immunology?

Immunology. Say it with me: Imm-yuh-nah-lah-gee. Excellent! Now, let’s discuss what this weird-looking word means, and why it is important to us.

Immunology literally means the study (‘-ology’) of the immune system (‘immuno-‘). Wherever you see that ‘-ology’ suffix, understand that you’re dealing with the study of something.

When it comes to immunology, there are many different branches within the field of study, including how our bodies respond to:

1. Bacteria
2. Viruses
3. Fungi
4. Parasites
5. Allergens (i.e. pollen)
6. Ourselves (i.e. autoimmunity/cancer)

When our bodies mount an immunological (meaning: related to immunology; ‘-ical’ = ‘related to’) response, that event is called ‘inflammation’. This occurs when our immune system encounters any of the entities listed above, and it also occurs when we experience an injury such as scraping our knee, tearing a ligament or breaking a bone. We also have to consider that how our human bodies respond during inflammation differs from other living organisms.

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For instance, there are some strains of virus (influenza comes to mind) that predominately impact birds but not humans, and vice-versa; refer to the figure below. In a minority of cases, a bird-specific virus can undergo a change (aka a mutation) and be able to transmit from bird to human.

Slightly different strains of the same virus can produce completely different symptoms in their respective hosts. Here, Strain A of this virus makes humans sick, but not birds. Conversely, Strain B of that virus exhibits the opposite effect.

In certain contexts, some organisms and animals can display very similar immune system responses as humans (i.e. pigs, fruit flies, mice, non-human primates), and this explains why they may be used in research studies relevant to humans. However, the subtle differences in those responses can sometimes lead to very different outcomes when the results of those studies are applied to human circumstances, in the form of treatments and therapies.

The most ideal outcome of these treatments and therapies is a ‘cure’, which helps bring the body back to its normal state (we scientists call this state, ‘homeostasis’) and we feel good again, because we have gotten rid of the problem!

So no, science is not always straight forward, and yes, it can get complicated.

Sorry.

Now that we have a better understanding of what immunology is, let’s talk about what our immune system is composed of.

Think of the immune system as a unique, internal military of our bodies, with different divisions and subgroups represented by different types of immune cells. All of which, are conducting different lines of work to protect us and keep us healthy.

There are two over-arching branches of the immune system, which include:
1. The innate immune system
2. The adaptive immune system

Our hair and skin are the greatest protection against the forces outside of our bodies, but when those layers are compromised and something gets in, the innate immune system serves as our first line of defense. This is generally comprised of the following cell types:

1. Neutrophils
2. Monocytes
3. Macrophages
4. Dendritic Cells
5. Eosinophils
6. Natural Killer Cells
7. Epithelial Cells
8. Mast Cells
9. Basophils

The primary role of this innate immunity group is to recognize and neutralize whatever is causing the inflammation, as quickly as possible, while minimizing any possible collateral damage to the immediate environment. Some cells seek-out the actual agent that stimulated the immune response in order to engulf and digest it, while other cells aim to remove or destroy host cells (any cell that originates from our body) that are infected or compromised in any way.

The other branch of the immune system is the adaptive immune system, which behaves as the special armed forces of the immune system. The innate immune system functions to attempt to clear whatever is causing inflammation the best it can, but when clearance can’t be achieved it aims to contain the inflammatory agent until the adaptive immune system kicks in.

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How long does this process of sending in the cavalry take? Oh, maybe 4-7 days. That’s why when you get a cold or a flu, you typically feel the scratchy throat and stuffy head symptoms for about a week – sometimes longer.

Hold up. I know what you want to ask. “Why so long, though?”
Well, to keep it simple I’ll provide you with the following analogy:

Imagine you walk into a store to find a formal suit or dress for an event. You have suits/dresses that are pre-made and ready to buy off the rack. The fit may not be exact, but it’s close enough to get the job done, and the task can be completed in a day or so. This would be your innate immune system.

However, if you want to fully customize your suit/dress, you have to pick out the material you want and have measurements taken so that it hugs your contours and fits you like a glove. This process takes time and between picking materials, taking measurements, and having the tailor work his/her magic in putting the garment together, this can take months!

But, the end result is a high quality garment, made to precisely fit you in that moment in time. This would be your adaptive immune system.

So, with that story in mind, you may now better understand why there are some pathogens that require a little extra time for our defenses to develop a precision attack plan, specifically for that entity. Unfortunately, there are some complex pathogens that our bodies are unable to clear on their own, and we require the assistance of supplementary treatments to clear them, or to at least stop them from causing further harm.

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As you can see, a lot goes on in our bodies when it comes to the function of our immune system, and it is always on watch 24/7. Our bodies are so good at what they do, you never even notice they’re working, most of the time. This only scratches the surface of immunology but as you will see in future parts of this series, there are countless details considered to protect our health. Most of the time you never know it’s happening, except, for example, when an infection takes hold in the form of a bad cold and you experience symptoms.

I hope you walked away with a better understanding of immunology (imm-yuh-nah-lah-gee 😉 ) after reading this, and check back for the next part of our immunology series. There is so much more to learn!

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Sour Milk- Caucasian Calcium Standards

For decades, the United States Dietary Association (USDA) and its subsidiaries have advocated for us to acquire our daily vitamin D and calcium requirements, in large part through dairy consumption. As an appropriate prelude to this article, check out ‘Milk, an udder mistake?’, for more background on food policy recommendations regarding dairy consumption. In any case, it’s safe to say that dairy products have become a staple food group in most of our lives, whether it’s cheese, ice cream, a bowl of cereal, or a plethora of other milk-based products.

A picture containing person, wall, indoor, woman

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With dairy products contributing to a significant portion of our daily calcium and vitamin D intake, that leaves a large proportion of American society in a conundrum of either having to deal with the inconvenient symptoms of lactose intolerance or consume fewer dairy products. 

With this seemingly binary decision, a public health concern arises regarding Hispanics and African-Americans being deficient in their acquisition of calcium and vitamin D. One solution to address deficiencies such as these has been to revise the WIC food packages by amending the eligible food items to accommodate better micronutrient supplementation. Although most WIC recipients are of Caucasian descent, Hispanics and African-Americans as a combined group make up the majority of program participants. So, the aim is to help provide this lower-income subset within these respective demographics with better food options. 

However, there seems to be an interesting paradox that has been uncovered by the research community over the last 20 years. Although African-Americans and Hispanics are historically recognized as deficient consumers of dairy with the lowest associated intake of calcium and vitamin D, it is known that these groups are still less predisposed to developing osteoporosis, versus Caucasians. 

A picture containing indoor

Description automatically generated

Although recommendations currently call for serum vitamin D levels (vitamin D circulating in the blood) between 20 and 50 ng/ml, black women actually displayed a lower hip fracture risk when they had less than the minimum recommended serum concentration; higher levels correlated with greater fracture risk. 

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Even more, there are correlations that infer a possible association between excess calcium intake for African American men and their alarming rate of U.S. metastatic prostate cancer diagnoses and deaths. Compared to their Caucasian counterparts, African-American men have a 50% higher risk of developing prostate cancer and are twice as likely to die from the disease after diagnosis.

Within this compilation of most recent studies, there are a couple schools of thought that experience some overlap. This includes those that are against lactose consumption (dairy) but comply with current calcium and vitamin D intake guidelines via non-dairy sources, and then there are those that are both against dairy and advocate for lower daily recommendations of the respective micronutrients. 

A person posing for the camera

Description automatically generated

For instance, one study showed that a low-lactose, high-calcium, high-vitamin D diet favors a reduced risk of ovarian cancer in African-American women. The interpretation of this study’s results drew controversy, not so much for the suggestion that less dairy may be better, but for the maintenance of the high-calcium mantra.

One of the critics, Dr. Constance Hilliard, has a unique perspective that blends a historian background with a clinical research context, and she has deduced that many people of African-American descent have been evolutionarily and epigenetically adapted to thrive on a low-calcium, low-sodium diet, among other divergent aspects of their when compared to the U.S. dietary guidelines. 

A person smiling for the camera

Description automatically generated
Dr. Constance Hilliard

This adaptation was acquired in West Africa before any appreciable movement of African populations to the western world, such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1500s-1800s) or before any pre-colonial, sea-faring expeditions by West African kingdoms (i.e. Mali Kingdom, led by Mansa Abu Bakari II, during the early 1300s). In Western Africa there has been a prevalence of Tsetse flies that have inhibited the sustenance of cattle grazing in this region, leading to calcium being sourced elsewhere, and in less abundance. According to Dr. Hilliard, these populations lived healthily on 200-400mg/day of calcium vs the 1000-1200mg/day U.S. recommendation.

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More specifically, this evolutionary pressure selected for a unique variant of TRPV6, a calcium channel responsible for dietary uptake of calcium. This channel variant is hypersensitive to calcium, requiring less than other variants which manifest in European haplotypes, for example. Dr. Hilliard suspects that the surplus of calcium in our diet due to guidelines that are set for Europeans and European-descendants, may be one of the major culprits behind the disparate prevalence of certain metastatic cancers, as this excess calcium may essentially be toxic to African Americans and other African-descended peoples.

Dr. Milton Mills

Another proponent of reducing dairy intake is Dr. Milton Mills, who has not only partaken in impassioned reviews and rebuttals regarding the seemingly misleading dietary guidelines but has also confronted the National Food board about the inherent racism that has manifested itself in the representation of the board, and subsequently in the health policies passed down to the public.

Dr. Mills, who also is a staunch advocate for veganism, has noted as a practicing physician that a wide variety of his patients’ symptoms which could normally be attributed to any number of disorders or diseases, have been alleviated by simply recommending removal of dairy from their diets. Depending on whether these patients are equally replacing the dairy with non-dairy supplementation would also provide more insight as to whether their positive response was solely attributed to reduced lactose intake or in conjunction with reduced calcium in their diets, as well.

Based on these findings, there seems to be growing evidence that our national dietary recommendations may need more diversification to fit the melting pot of America that this country has become. It is a sad prospect to suspect that consumers in their own best interest may be following guidelines that unbeknownst to them may have unintended consequences.  If you are interested in exploring non-dairy options to acquire your calcium and vitamin D necessities, be sure to reference this article for more information and sources.

If you found this article informative please hit the ‘like’ button below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our platform for the latest intriguing science news and media!

Sour Milk: Caucasian Calcium Standards

For decades, the United States Dietary Association (USDA) and its subsidiaries have advocated for us to acquire our daily vitamin D and calcium requirements, in large part through dairy consumption. As an appropriate prelude to this article, check out ‘Milk, an udder mistake?’, for more background on food policy recommendations regarding dairy consumption. In any case, it’s safe to say that dairy products have become a staple food group in most of our lives, whether it’s cheese, ice cream, a bowl of cereal, or a plethora of other milk-based products.

A picture containing person, wall, indoor, woman

Description automatically generated

With dairy products contributing to a significant portion of our daily calcium and vitamin D intake, that leaves a large proportion of American society in a conundrum of either having to deal with the inconvenient symptoms of lactose intolerance or consume fewer dairy products. 

With this seemingly binary decision, a public health concern arises regarding Hispanics and African-Americans being deficient in their acquisition of calcium and vitamin D. One solution to address deficiencies such as these has been to revise the WIC food packages by amending the eligible food items to accommodate better micronutrient supplementation. Although most WIC recipients are of Caucasian descent, Hispanics and African-Americans as a combined group make up the majority of program participants. So, the aim is to help provide this lower-income subset within these respective demographics with better food options. 

However, there seems to be an interesting paradox that has been uncovered by the research community over the last 20 years. Although African-Americans and Hispanics are historically recognized as deficient consumers of dairy with the lowest associated intake of calcium and vitamin D, it is known that these groups are still less predisposed to developing osteoporosis, versus Caucasians. 

A picture containing indoor

Description automatically generated

Although recommendations currently call for serum vitamin D levels (vitamin D circulating in the blood) between 20 and 50 ng/ml, black women actually displayed a lower hip fracture risk when they had less than the minimum recommended serum concentration; higher levels correlated with greater fracture risk. 

Advertisements

Even more, there are correlations that infer a possible association between excess calcium intake for African American men and their alarming rate of U.S. metastatic prostate cancer diagnoses and deaths. Compared to their Caucasian counterparts, African-American men have a 50% higher risk of developing prostate cancer and are twice as likely to die from the disease after diagnosis.

Within this compilation of most recent studies, there are a couple schools of thought that experience some overlap. This includes those that are against lactose consumption (dairy) but comply with current calcium and vitamin D intake guidelines via non-dairy sources, and then there are those that are both against dairy and advocate for lower daily recommendations of the respective micronutrients. 

A person posing for the camera

Description automatically generated

For instance, one study showed that a low-lactose, high-calcium, high-vitamin D diet favors a reduced risk of ovarian cancer in African-American women. The interpretation of this study’s results drew controversy, not so much for the suggestion that less dairy may be better, but for the maintenance of the high-calcium mantra.

One of the critics, Dr. Constance Hilliard, has a unique perspective that blends a historian background with a clinical research context, and she has deduced that many people of African-American descent have been evolutionarily and epigenetically adapted to thrive on a low-calcium, low-sodium diet, among other divergent aspects of their when compared to the U.S. dietary guidelines. 

A person smiling for the camera

Description automatically generated
Dr. Constance Hilliard

This adaptation was acquired in West Africa before any appreciable movement of African populations to the western world, such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1500s-1800s) or before any pre-colonial, sea-faring expeditions by West African kingdoms (i.e. Mali Kingdom, led by Mansa Abu Bakari II, during the early 1300s). In Western Africa there has been a prevalence of Tsetse flies that have inhibited the sustenance of cattle grazing in this region, leading to calcium being sourced elsewhere, and in less abundance. According to Dr. Hilliard, these populations lived healthily on 200-400mg/day of calcium vs the 1000-1200mg/day U.S. recommendation.

Advertisements

More specifically, this evolutionary pressure selected for a unique variant of TRPV6, a calcium channel responsible for dietary uptake of calcium. This channel variant is hypersensitive to calcium, requiring less than other variants which manifest in European haplotypes, for example. Dr. Hilliard suspects that the surplus of calcium in our diet due to guidelines that are set for Europeans and European-descendants, may be one of the major culprits behind the disparate prevalence of certain metastatic cancers, as this excess calcium may essentially be toxic to African Americans and other African-descended peoples.

Dr. Milton Mills

Another proponent of reducing dairy intake is Dr. Milton Mills, who has not only partaken in impassioned reviews and rebuttals regarding the seemingly misleading dietary guidelines but has also confronted the National Food board about the inherent racism that has manifested itself in the representation of the board, and subsequently in the health policies passed down to the public.

Dr. Mills, who also is a staunch advocate for veganism, has noted as a practicing physician that a wide variety of his patients’ symptoms which could normally be attributed to any number of disorders or diseases, have been alleviated by simply recommending removal of dairy from their diets. Depending on whether these patients are equally replacing the dairy with non-dairy supplementation would also provide more insight as to whether their positive response was solely attributed to reduced lactose intake or in conjunction with reduced calcium in their diets, as well.

Based on these findings, there seems to be growing evidence that our national dietary recommendations may need more diversification to fit the melting pot of America that this country has become. It is a sad prospect to suspect that consumers in their own best interest may be following guidelines that unbeknownst to them may have unintended consequences.  If you are interested in exploring non-dairy options to acquire your calcium and vitamin D necessities, be sure to reference this article for more information and sources.

If you found this article informative please hit the ‘like’ button below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our platform for the latest intriguing science news and media!

Amphibians Are Going Extinct, The Cure For Cancer May Die With Them

There is a constant clamor for the “cure for cancer” and other medical miracles. Although the cancer research industry falls back on plants and synthetic chemistry to find cures, some in the science world believe the very cures we seek may be found within frogs, toads, newts and salamanders.

Hans Spemann, professor of zoology at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau, was awarded the  Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1935 for discovering that the fate of embryonic cells is not predetermined. This discovery was made using the embryos of newts. Without this research, techniques like stem cell transplant would not exist. Stem cell transplants are currently used to treat blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma.  

Researchers have found some amphibians are capable of secreting chemicals that potentially have both antimicrobial and anticancer properties.  In a world where antibiotic resistant superbugs take 70,000 lives per year, we need to pursue every new antimicrobial possibility. 

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer worldwide, taking 880,000 lives in 2018. This cancer can develop chemoresistance due to a high level of tumor heterogeneity, highlighting a need for novel treatments. Research on toad venom compounds have shown this venom is able to prevent the growth of two different types of colorectal cancer. 

The research on the medicinal benefits of amphibians is simultaneously understudied and underappreciated. These animals represent a system that could provide a wide array of treatment options for the complex medical problems we face today, but the species is struggling for survival. 

In the past 50 years, there have been more than 500 amphibian species threatened by fungal diseases and human activity. Amphibians such as frogs, newts and salamanders all have permeable skin; this means that amphibians are extremely sensitive to toxins, pollutants and disease. This has resulted in at least 90 extinctions, and will likely lead to more if significant regulatory and conservation efforts are not made. 

If we do not change the way we conduct amphibian conservation and habitat protection our beloved amphibians will become extinct. If you want to help protect these creatures, support or join the organizations below.

Endangered Species International

https://www.endangeredspeciesinternational.org/amphibians7.html

National Wildlife Federation 

https://www.nwf.org/

If you found this article informative please hit the ‘like’ button below, and don’t forget to subscribe to our platform for the latest intriguing science news and media!