Science Lion Byte: Vaping Illness Outbreak Update – Jan. 31, 2020

***Science Lion Media will pause coverage on the vaping outbreak as the public health issue has plateaued and appears to be reaching a resolution. Thank you for heeding the advice of health professionals and communicators to protect yourselves and others from unnecessary harm***

Please refer to our previous publication for a comprehensive background of the vaping illness outbreak in the United States.

Here is a summary of the latest vaping-related lung illness information released by the CDC, as of January 21, 2019 at 1pm EST:

  • The CDC, as of December 4, 2019, has elected to only report hospitalized EVALI cases and related-deaths, regardless of hospitalization status. Non-hospitalized cases have been removed from previously reported case counts.                     
  • The number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) cases has been reported to reach 2,711 nationwide. With California, Illinois, and Texas leading the nation in confirmed EVALI cases.
  • EVALI cases have now been reported in all 50 states of the United States, after Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services reported their first case of vaping-related lung injury on December 3, 2019. The District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have reported cases, as well.
  • There have now been 60 confirmed deaths related to EVALI, with Texas reporting the youngest EVALI-related death of a 15 year-old.
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As of the most recent data collected from January 14, 2019, EVALI patient statistics are as follows:

  • Regarding hospitalization status, 95% of EVALI patients have been hospitalized; 5% have not.
  • 66% of patients are reported to be male.
  • The median age of patients is 24 years old, with an age range between 13 and 85 years old.
  • The median age of the deceased patients is 51 years old, with an age range between 15 and 75 years old.
  • Breakdown of patients by age group:
    15% of patients were under 18 years old
    37% were 18 to 24 years old
    24% were 25 to 34 years old
    24% were 35 years or older

 

 

The most complete information of patient product use, 3 months prior to symptom onset, reflects the following:

  • 82% reported using THC-containing products; 33% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • 57% reported using nicotine-containing products; 14% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
  • Younger EVALI patients (13-17 years of age) were significantly more likely to acquire THC-containing vape products only from informal sources (94%), versus 62% of older patients, 45 years of age and older.
  • Regarding nicotine-containing vape products, 42% of younger EVALI patients (13-17 years of age) acquired these products only from informal sources, versus 12% of older patients, 45 years of age and older.

Overall, 152 different THC-containing product brands were reported by EVALI patients, and of those products reported, *Dank Vapes was the most commonly reported product brand used by patients nationwide, although there are regional differences. This supports the premise that THC-containing products are heavily contributing to the EVALI outbreak, and that no one brand is solely responsible. Overall, these unregulated and off-branded products, in addition to their unconventional use, are suspected of undergirding the spread of this lung illness outbreak.

* Dank Vapes is a class of largely counterfeit THC-containing products of unknown origin.

 

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On January 2, 2020, the FDA implemented a partial ban on vaping in the US, focused on ceasing the manufacture of unauthorized flavors which may appeal to under-age individuals. Additionally, President Trump has signed into law an amendment which nationally raises the smoking age from 18 to 21 years old.

Looking beyond the United States, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has officially issued a ban on e-cigarettes, after the country reported its first confirmed EVALI case in a 16 year-old girl, on November 15, 2019.

The Philippines join roughly 30 other countries that have moved to issue a ban on e-cigarette products, including Brazil, India and Singapore. Indonesia is now strongly considering following suit of the Philippines by possibly issuing their own vaping ban to preempt the surfacing of EVALI cases in its country.

Canada is also experiencing an uptick in vaping cases with its 17th official EVALI case reported in the country, as of January 21, 2020.

 

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Sodium Intake and Your Health: A Tale of Two Standards

When it comes to making food pleasurable to the taste buds, adding salt to a cuisine definitely helps make that a reality. Salt has been known not just as a food additive for flavor enhancement, but for thousands of years, it has also been used as a preservative to extend the shelf-life of food.

However, as with many things in western society, the use of salt has become excessive. Simultaneously, the prevalence of obesity has also been on the rise along with the associated negative health consequences, such as, diabetes, renal (kidney) disease, and cardiovascular disease. For all of these outcomes, in one way or another, the common denominator is hypertension (high blood pressure), so controlling this risk-factor is paramount in maintaining good long-term health.

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Clinicians advise that for good cardiovascular health, we maintain a resting blood pressure reading of 120/80 or less. So what does that readout actually mean? The top number, 120, represents the pressure that blood vessels are subjected to when the heart pumps, and the bottom number, 80, represents the pressure on the blood vessels when the heart is at rest.

Important blood pressure levels to consider
Hypertension: 140/90 and above
Prehypertension: 121-139/81-89
Normal: 120/80 and below

A primary factor that influences blood pressure is sodium, and the most common form of sodium consumption is salt. Although there is a common misconception that the two substances are synonymous, on a molecular level, salt in the form of NaCl (sodium chloride) is 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride, so salt is not purely sodium.

Without getting too detailed with the molecular chemistry of NaCl (sodium chloride), this is a simplified representation of the salt molecule at an atomic level.

Taking this into consideration, it is clear that tracking sodium intake is prudent to the regulation of blood pressure. Specific populations are more susceptible to the impacts of excessive sodium intake, such as adult populations over 50 years old, individuals with a history of cardiovascular complications, and individuals of African descent.

To help the general population gauge how much sodium they should be consuming, the USDA has established guidelines for daily sodium intake, with 2300mg being the upper limit for the general population, and 1500mg for more salt-sensitive groups.

However, just because there are guidelines in place, does not mean that we actually abide by them. Unfortunately, it is estimated that about 90 percent of Americans are ingesting too much sodium, and according to the CDC, the average American consumes more than 3400mg of sodium per day! It’s no wonder that with the over-indulgence of this element, cardiovascular-related disorders and diseases are the leading cause of death, not just in the United States, but also in the world!

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So how are we consuming so much sodium? I mean, we’re talking thousands of milligrams per day, so is it that hard to stay within the suggested limits? The figure below, courtesy of the CDC, may give you an idea of how quickly your sodium intake can add up.

Breads, canned goods, processed foods, fast foods, and packaged snack foods contain some of the highest levels of sodium that can be potentially introduced into our diets, so avoiding these where possible is strongly advised when striving to follow a low-sodium regimen.

Now, if we go back to the sodium intake guidelines we notice that in the context of ethnic groups, only African-descended people are advised to shoot for the lower sodium limit, which begs the question, “Why?”

There is no one over-arching smoking gun, but one link that has been made pertains to the angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) gene, which manifests itself in multiple variants/forms. This ACE gene is responsible for inducing the release of a hormone called angiotensin, which regulates the level of constriction of the blood vessels and, by proxy, regulates blood pressure.

Some of these ACE variants which exist in people of African-descent are more sensitive to sodium, and exposure to certain levels of this element can result in an over-constriction of the blood vessels, leading to an elevated systolic blood pressure.

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However, with this in mind, African-descended people who may be nutrition facts-conscious and track their sodium consumption may need to be wary of another revelation: The nutrition facts label assumes that your daily limit of sodium is capped at the general population’s recommendation of 2300mg.

Oops.

So instead of going by the percent of daily value, people of African descent and other susceptible groups need to pay attention to the number of milligrams of sodium, and align it with their 1500mg limit.

Some of these group-specific nuances have a history of being overlooked or ignored, as we have highlighted in previous publications regarding dairy consumption, or even calcium and vitamin D daily recommendations.

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As is typical with science, opposite findings have been revealed when tipping the scale to the other extreme of very little sodium consumption. There are also instances where lower sodium intake may not show benefits to cardiovascular health, and some of these findings are presumptively gathered and disseminated as a devil’s advocate rebuttal to the promotion of a diet lower in sodium.

However, what is often overlooked is that the studies supporting this rebuttal are composed of majority or entirely Caucasian participants; this means that we don’t really know if these claims hold the same weight for African descendants, Hispanics, Asians, or any other non-Caucasian groups (remember those ethnic group nuances we mentioned earlier?). According to the American Heart Association (AHA), 500mg of sodium is the minimum requirement for physiological health (healthy bodily function). In this day and age, barring an extreme circumstance, it is pretty difficult to not eclipse that threshold.

Claims of a low sodium diet not being beneficial may only be relegated to individuals with a history of congestive heart failure, or in very extreme instances of voluntary (diet) or involuntary (starvation) sodium restriction. These claims should not be irresponsibly dispersed as this may mislead and misinform the readers. Any study findings that have shown a lack of benefit from lower sodium intake (within physiologically relevant levels, such as 1000mg-2000mg) have been relegated to almost exclusively Caucasian participants.

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So, besides the typical recommendations of avoiding sodium-laden foods or suppressing the urge to add excess salt when cooking (and at the dinner table), are there any other ways to help individuals of African descent reduce sodium intake? Definitely!

  • Consume more potassium-rich foods. Potassium and sodium are fierce competitors for some of the same targets, so the blood pressure-raising effects of sodium can be offset by the presence of this element. Bananas, orange juice, sweet potatoes, and spinach are excellent sources of potassium, for example.
  • Consider using a proportion of potassium chloride with traditional sodium chloride salt. Some food companies have done this, like Smartfoods, with their bagged popcorn.
  • Transition to a more contemporary salt alternative, such as SODA-LO with their salt microspheres. Simply put, it is your traditional sodium chloride salt, but with a twist; it’s engineered as hollow spheres instead of dense flakes or granules, so the density of salt (and concentration of sodium) is up to 50% less! This Tate & Lyle’s ingredient has garnered recognition for its innovative goal of helping reduce our sodium intake, while apparently retaining that same magnificent salty taste (*wink wink*). Hopefully, this product can be approved for adoption worldwide, if it hasn’t already.
  • Make sure to consult your primary care physician or personal dietician for guidance in implementing the aforementioned suggestions, as well as other alternatives I haven’t mentioned here.

With the daily grind of work, family, and recreation, it can be challenging to plan and execute your goals of reducing sodium intake. Meal planning and cooking take time, I get it. But believe me, it’s worth the effort. Not only will your body thank you for it, but so will your loved ones; not just for sticking around, but for maintaining a higher quality of life while you’re still here.

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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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Science Lion Byte: Vaping Illness Outbreak Update – Jan. 9, 2020

Please refer to our previous publication for a comprehensive background of the vaping illness outbreak in the United States.

Here is a summary of the latest vaping-related lung illness data released by the CDC, as of January 9, 2019 at 1pm EST:

  • The CDC, as of December 4, 2019, has elected to only report hospitalized EVALI cases and related-deaths, regardless of hospitalization status. Non-hospitalized cases have been removed from previously reported case counts.                     
  • The number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) cases has been reported to reach 2,602 nationwide. With California, Illinois, and Texas leading the nation in confirmed EVALI cases.
  • EVALI cases have now been reported in all 50 states of the United States, after Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services reported their first case of vaping-related lung injury on December 3, 2019. The District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have reported cases, as well.
  • There have now been 57 confirmed deaths related to EVALI. Among states reporting the most EVALI-related deaths are Illinois (5), Indiana (5), and California (4), with Texas reporting the youngest EVALI-related death of a 15 year-old, today.
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As of the most recent data collected from December 3, 2019, EVALI patient statistics are as follows:

  • Regarding hospitalization status, 95% of EVALI patients have been hospitalized; 5% have not.
  • 67% of patients are reported to be male.
  • Breakdown of patients by age group:
    16% of patients were under 18 years old
    38% were 18 to 24 years old
    24% were 25 to 34 years old
    23% were 35 years or older

 

 

The most complete information of patient product use, 3 months prior to symptom onset, reflects the following:

  • 80% reported using THC-containing products; 35% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • 54% reported using nicotine-containing products; 13% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
  • 40% reported both THC- and nicotine-containing product use.
  • 5% reported no THC- or nicotine-containing product use.

Overall, 152 different THC-containing product brands were reported by EVALI patients, and of those products reported, *Dank Vapes was the most commonly reported product brand used by patients nationwide, although there are regional differences. This supports the premise that THC-containing products are heavily contributing to the EVALI outbreak, and that no one brand is solely responsible. Overall, these unregulated and off-branded products, in addition to their unconventional use, are suspected of undergirding the spread of this lung illness outbreak.

* Dank Vapes is a class of largely counterfeit THC-containing products of unknown origin.

 

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On January 2, 2020, the FDA implemented a partial ban on vaping in the US, focused on ceasing the manufacture of unauthorized flavors which may appeal to under-age individuals. Additionally, President Trump has signed into law an amendment which nationally raises the smoking age from 18 to 21 years old.

Looking beyond the United States, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has officially issued a ban on e-cigarettes, after the country reported its first confirmed EVALI case in a 16 year-old girl, on November 15, 2019.

The Philippines join roughly 30 other countries that have moved to issue a ban on e-cigarette products, including Brazil, India and Singapore. Indonesia is now strongly considering following suit of the Philippines by possibly issuing their own vaping ban to preempt the surfacing of EVALI cases in its country.

Canada is also experiencing an uptick in vaping cases with its 15th official EVALI case reported in the country, as of January 2, 2020.

Take care and stay tuned for the next Science Lion Byte!

 

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Science Lion Byte: Vaping Illness Outbreak Update – Dec. 13, 2019

Please refer to our previous publication for a comprehensive background of the vaping illness outbreak in the United States.

Here is a summary of the latest vaping-related lung illness data released by the CDC, as of December 12, 2019 at 1pm EST:

  • As of December 4, 2019, CDC will only report hospitalized EVALI cases and EVALI deaths regardless of hospitalization status.                     
  • The number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) cases has been reported to reach 2,409 nationwide, rising from 2,291 last week. California, Illinois, and Texas lead the nation in confirmed EVALI cases.
  • EVALI cases have now been reported in all 50 states of the United States, after Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services reported their first case of vaping-related lung injury on December 3, 2019. The District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have reported cases, as well.
  • There have now been 52 confirmed deaths related to EVALI, rising from 48 last week. States reporting the most EVALI-related deaths are Illinois (5), Indiana (5), and California (4).
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As of December 3, 2019, EVALI patient statistics are as follows:

  • Regarding hospitalization status, 95% of EVALI patients have been hospitalized; 5% have not.
  • 67% of patients are reported to be male.
  • Breakdown of patients by age group:
    16% of patients were under 18 years old
    38% were 18 to 24 years old
    24% were 25 to 34 years old
    23% were 35 years or older

 

 

The most complete information of patient product use, 3 months prior to symptom onset, reflects the following:

  • 82% reported using THC-containing products; 35% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • 62% reported using nicotine-containing products; 13% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
  • 48% reported both THC- and nicotine-containing product use.
  • 4% reported no THC- or nicotine-containing product use.

Overall, 152 different THC-containing product brands were reported by EVALI patients, and of those products reported, *Dank Vapes was the most commonly reported product brand used by patients nationwide, although there are regional differences. This supports the premise that THC-containing products are heavily contributing to the EVALI outbreak, and that no one brand is solely responsible.

* Dank Vapes is a class of largely counterfeit THC-containing products of unknown origin.

 

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Looking beyond the United States, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has officially issued a ban on e-cigarettes, after the country reported its first confirmed EVALI case in a 16 year-old girl, on November 15, 2019.

The Philippines join roughly 30 other countries that have moved to issue a ban on e-cigarette products, including Brazil, India and Singapore. Indonesia is now strongly considering following suit of the Philippines by possibly issuing their own vaping ban to preempt the surfacing of EVALI cases in its country. President Trump of the United States is still contemplating an executive order to ban e-cigarettes; in particular, flavored e-cigarette products. In the meantime, a vaping bill which is currently being mulled over in congress, would strengthen restrictions against tobacco sales to youths and ban e-cigarette flavorings; this bill will be voted on early next year.

Canada is also experiencing an uptick in vaping cases with its 14th official EVALI case reported in the country, as of December 10, 2019.

Take care and stay tuned for the next Science Lion Byte!

 

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Science Lion Byte: Vaping Illness Outbreak Update – Dec. 6, 2019

Please refer to our previous publication for a comprehensive background of the vaping illness outbreak in the United States.

Here is a summary of the latest vaping-related lung illness data released by the CDC, as of December 5, 2019 at 1pm EST:

  • As of December 4, 2019, CDC will only report hospitalized EVALI cases and EVALI deaths regardless of hospitalization status. As a result, the CDC removed 175 non-hospitalized cases from previously reported national cases.                                                                   
  • The number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) cases has been reported to reach 2,291 nationwide, rising from 2,116 last week. California, Illinois, and Texas lead the nation in confirmed EVALI cases.
  • EVALI cases have now been reported in all 50 states of the United States, after Alaska’s Department of Health and Social Services reported their first case of vaping-related lung injury on December 3, 2019. The District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have reported cases, as well.
  • There have now been 48 confirmed deaths related to EVALI, rising from 47 last week. States reporting the most EVALI-related deaths are Illinois (5), California (4), and Indiana (4).
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As of the most recent data set, EVALI patient statistics are as follows:

  • Regarding hospitalization status, 95% of EVALI patients have been hospitalized; 5% have not.
  • 68% of patients are reported to be male.
  • Breakdown of patients by age group:
    15% of patients were under 18 years old
    38% were 18 to 24 years old
    24% were 25 to 34 years old
    23% were 35 years or older

 

 

The most complete information of patient product use, 3 months prior to symptom onset, reflects the following:

  • 83% reported using THC-containing products; 35% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • 61% reported using nicotine-containing products; 13% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
  • 48% reported both THC- and nicotine-containing product use.
  • 4% reported no THC- or nicotine-containing product use.

 

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Looking beyond the United States, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has officially issued a ban on e-cigarettes, after the country reported its first confirmed EVALI case in a 16 year-old girl, on November 15, 2019.

The Philippines join roughly 30 other countries that have moved to issue a ban on e-cigarette products, including Brazil, India and Singapore. Indonesia is now strongly considering following suit of the Philippines by possibly issuing their own vaping ban to preempt the surfacing of EVALI cases in its country. President Trump of the United States is still contemplating an executive order to ban e-cigarettes; in particular, flavored e-cigarette products.

Canada has also reported that they now have 13 official EVALI cases in its country with fears of more cases popping up in the future.

Take care and stay tuned for the next Science Lion Byte!

 

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Science Lion Featured Guest: Raven Hardy and Sickle Cell

Science Lion recently had the pleasure of having a PhD candidate, Raven Hardy, drop by to speak with us about her upcoming event for sickle cell advocacy. To preface awareness of this event and the cause behind it, she also shed some light on her journey through graduate school, in addition to how she became interested in sickle cell research.

Raven is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Emory University, working in the lab of Dr. Hyacinth, which is part of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. In particular, she looks at the profile of inflammation in sickle cell patients, and the impact that it may have on brain structure, and subsequently on cognitive deficiencies (dysfunction of the brain) and cell proliferation (cell division and growth).

Upon making these assessments, she observes how these effects track with age, from childhood to adulthood; these alterations of the brain appear to be culprits of the resulting strokes and neurological disorders that may manifest in sickle cell patients.

All of which are done in a mouse model that is humanized or genetically altered to mimic the expression of relevant human proteins in the brain. The purpose of humanizing in this case is to resemble as closely as possible what happens in a human brain, without having to use one.

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But how did Raven get here, in the first place, to do this kind of research? Many times, people draw inspiration and direction in life from tragedy, and this case stands true for Raven, as well. During her senior year of undergraduate studies, Raven’s sister, who herself lived with sickle cell, passed away at the age of 26 from brain death, extending from complications due to a preceding sickle cell crisis.  After managing to overcome that great loss and obtaining her degree, she began her unconventional path through graduate school.

Although she had a passion to learn more about sickle cell and its effects from a research standpoint, she initially entered a PhD program at Scripps Research Institute studying brain-related microorganisms called prions. She later transferred to Emory University, switching gears in her research, and focusing on brain imaging as it related to nutrition in predominately African American communities. However, her journey did not stop there.

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“Unfortunately, I had to leave that lab”, Raven reflected with a chuckle. “And as it would so have, I was able to join a lab that did sickle cell research, so I actually think that my path took a complete circle to get me right where I wanted to be.”

That lab would be her current research home with Dr. Hyacinth. “But I’m happy to be where I am”, she remarked with a smile on her face. “I feel as though when you’re meant to be somewhere you’ll end up there, and I think this is where I’m meant to be.”

So what is sickle cell disease? Sickle cell is a genetic blood disorder that can manifest itself if two parents carry the sickle cell trait. Within the context of the disease, red blood cells possess a “sickle-like” shape, inducing pain and inflammation – a response of immune cells – which can result in a “crisis event.” Unfortunately, these crisis events can lead to adverse outcomes such as stroke, or even death.

Sickle Cell Punnett Square
Punnett Square: This type of diagram outlines the possible combinations of alleles passed down from parents (alleles are variable forms of a given gene). Here we show what allele combinations correspond with which resulting phenotype (phenotype is the outward expression of genes – in other words, what we see!).

Bridging the conventional knowledge of the disease with what she is researching now in the neuroscience realm, Raven informs us that individuals with sickle cell can have high levels of behavioral and cognitive deficits. “So as far as blood is concerned, morbidities may stem from high levels of inflammation that induce the crisis (event) , and this inflammatory crisis may occur in the brain leading to different forms of brain damage.”

In addition to the amazing and intriguing research that she conducts in the lab, Raven really has a passion to advocate for closing the racial disparity gaps within health care, and of course in raising awareness of sickle cell disease, especially as it disproportionately impacts people of African descent.

“There is a lot of research and support for children with sickle cell, but when you reach adulthood and require a continuum of care, unfortunately it is not to the level where it should be”, Raven contends. “So, definitely there should be more physicians that are able to treat and manage individuals with sickle cell in crisis, and in general health.”

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Speaking of her endeavors in public health advocacy, this leads us to her current task of raising awareness of sickle cell in her local community by holding a “sickle cell gala” on her birthday, in honor of her late sister. The Dec. 6 art gala event includes a classy dinner at the Miller-Ward Alumni House in Atlanta, GA, and offers a social opportunity to network in a nurturing environment with other participating individuals. All proceeds toward the event will go to sickle cell causes.

If you would like to follow in Science Lion Media’s footsteps and donate to the cause of furthering sickle cell research and bettering the relevant public health policy, please visit her GoFundMe page. This way, she can allocate the funds to the most reputable organizations for maximum community impact. If you are interested in attending her art gala event, please reach out to Raven at blackbyrd1206@gmail.com for any remaining seats.

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Be sure to check back soon for the uploaded, full podcast interview with Raven as the Science Lion Media team chopped it up with this outstanding young lady, who has personified perseverance in the face of an unconventional road to her PhD.

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Science Lion Byte: Vaping Illness Outbreak Update – Nov. 21, 2019

Please refer to our previous publication for a comprehensive background of the vaping illness outbreak in the United States.

Here is a summary of the latest vaping-related lung illness data released by the CDC, as of November 21, 2019 at 1pm EST:

  • The number of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury (EVALI) cases has been reported to reach 2,290 nationwide, rising from 2,172 last week. California, Illinois, and Texas lead the nation in confirmed EVALI cases.
  • EVALI cases have now been reported in all of the United States, with the exception of Alaska. The District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands have reported cases, as well.
  • There have now been 47 confirmed deaths related to EVALI, rising from 42 last week. States reporting the most EVALI-related deaths are Illinois (5), California (4), and Indiana (4).
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As of the most recent data set, EVALI patient statistics are as follows:

  • Regarding hospitalization status, 95% of EVALI patients have been hospitalized; 5% have not.
  • 68% of patients are reported to be male.
  • Breakdown of patients by age group:
    15% of patients were under 18 years old
    38% were 18 to 24 years old
    24% were 25 to 34 years old
    23% were 35 years or older

The most complete information of patient product use, 3 months prior to symptom onset, reflects the following:

  • 83% reported using THC-containing products; 35% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products.
  • 61% reported using nicotine-containing products; 13% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.
  • 48% reported both THC- and nicotine-containing product use.
  • 4% reported no THC- or nicotine-containing product use.

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Looking beyond the United States, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines plans to issue an official ban on e-cigarettes, after the country reported its first confirmed EVALI case in a 16 year-old girl, on November 15, 2019.

The Philippines would join roughly 30 other countries that have moved to issue a ban on e-cigarette products, including Brazil, India and Singapore. President Trump of the United States is still contemplating an executive order to ban e-cigarettes; in particular, flavored e-cigarette products.

Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, the CDC will not report new numbers next week, but expect an update around December 5.

Take care and stay tuned for the next Science Lion Byte!

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Patience is a Virtue When Growing a Pineapple

Growing up, my father was an avid horticulturist, with a garden plot in our backyard, allocated to fruit and vegetable cultivation. As I grew older, I realized the difference in quality of homegrown food versus store bought; you could just TASTE it. Not to mention, this was before organic was even a categorical option in the grocery store. With age and further knowledge, I became aware of how important it was to source my food supply from a quality-controlled environment, where I could ensure no potentially hazardous pesticides or herbicides were applied to it.

Now as an adult, I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned from him (and the internet) to successfully try my hand at a variety of crops, including: Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, kale, bell peppers, tobasco peppers, watermelon, zucchini, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries – is that list exhaustive enough for ya? Ha! 😀 But then one day it hit me! My favorite fruit is pineapple, so could it be possible for me to grow a tropical fruit in a temperate climate? I figured I’d give it a try…

After cutting and peeling a recent pineapple, I saved the crown and removed the dying leaves from it. I continued removing layers of leaf blades until I could view the brown root tips at the base of the crown (circled in red, in the picture below). Some sites suggest allowing the crown to sit and dry for a couple days before planting in a pot of peat moss, but I’ve also been successful planting immediately after de-leafing the crown. 

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Now being that pineapples are bromeliads and somewhat related to the cactus, they don’t require much water, nor do they appreciate sitting in water-logged soil for extended periods of time (thus the use of peat-moss). So, don’t suffocate the little plant with love; resort to a weekly, light watering and allow the crown to settle into the soil. After about 3 months, new leaves will emerge from your planted pineapple crown, and it should look something like the picture below.

Over the course of 2 years I watered once weekly, and after about 6 months in the pot I fertilized once monthly with a granular, organic fertilizer; I prefer fertilizing the soil around the roots as opposed to applying products to the foliage, as some suggest. This way, I can avoid potentially ‘burning’ the leaf blades, and stressing out the plant.

I also made sure to bring my potted pineapple inside once outside temperatures dropped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 60 during the day.

Then one August day, I observed an interesting finding….*gasps*

August 7 – The pineapple displayed a developing flower bud! Subsequently, it would blossom and eventually grow into a mature fruit, if all went well!

Check out these chronologically sequenced photos as my pineapple continues growing!

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August 20 – Photo zooming in on the flower bud.

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September 3 – The flower bud is blooming from bottom to top! Did you know that a pineapple is the fusion of multiple individual fruits? Each flower blossom represents one of those individual fruits.
September 12
September 12
September 16 – The pineapple flower (inflorescence) is finished blooming, and the fruit is completely fused together. Now it begins to grow as a whole, fused fruit, and will mature over the next 4-5 months.
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October 1
October 5
October 18 – In case you were wondering, this plant spans over 4 feet in diameter!

Pretty cool, huh?

Well, “The marathon continues…”(shoutout to Nipsey Hussle, RIP). Keep your fingers crossed for me while we enter the winter season, as I’ll have to bring this little pineapple inside where there’s some semblance of climate control! The biggest challenge will be providing adequate lighting…hmmmm…what to do, what to do…🤔

Check back in a few months for my updated post as I attempt to address my interior lighting issue and detail the remaining growth and ripening stages of the fruit. Hope you’ve enjoyed my pineapple-growing journey so far, and don’t be afraid to embark upon your own. You can do it!

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Milk: An Udder Mistake?

We’re told to drink cow’s milk to build stronger bones, while being  bombarded with “Got milk?” commercials, posters, and sound-bytes supporting dairy in our diet. However, why milk is needed may not be entirely clear. Is milk really crucial to our bone health? Let’s talk about it.

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Some of us may remember the food pyramid, created in 1992 by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, displaying how many servings of each food group are needed to be healthy and strong. 

As it pertains to the dairy section, we were told that each day we should consume 2-3 servings of dairy products, all of which includes milk and foods derived from it. As of 2011, the USDA has opted to replace this reference with a food plate to provide an updated look to their food policy promotion.

Milk serves as an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D which are essential micronutrients that work together for the development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, while also supporting a functional immune system to fight infection and disease.

According to the United States Food and Nutrition Board (FNB), the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,000 mg/day with older, post-menopausal women recommended to take upwards of 1200mg/day; regarding vitamin D intake, the RDA ranges between 10 mcg and 20 mcg per day, depending on the age group.

(Currently, the FDA is implementing plans for updating nutrition labels pertaining to units of conversion by July 1, 2021, and as an example, vitamin D’s International units (IU) are being converted to micrograms (mcg). Until then, you can use this calculator for a variety of conversion purposes, to avoid confusion.)

USDA Food Plate, 2011

Of note, very few foods naturally contain substantial vitamin D, thus requiring supplementation of our food supply with this nutrient to reach our daily recommendations. For example, 1 cup of raw cow’s milk contains .03 mcg – .20 mcg (.3% – 2% daily value!) of vitamin D. As a result, since the 1930s milk in the U.S. has been supplemented with 2.5mcg of vitamin D per cup of milk (25% of daily recommendation). Calcium, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring in cow’s milk, providing 300mg or 30% of the daily recommendation. 

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All things considered, it seems to make sense that we be encouraged by our food policy entities to obtain our nutritional requirements through the easiest, most supplemented routes possible. Yet, studies have shown there are still shortcomings in nutrient acquisition of calcium and vitamin D. Well, there seem to be underlying reasons behind the great disparities in United States’ dairy consumption between demographics, which we allude to next. 

The primary deterrent of almost all non-european ethnic groups consuming dairy is a condition termed lactose intolerance. This is due to a deficiency or absence of an enzyme called lactase, which allows for the digestion of products containing the sugar lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include abdominal discomfort, flatulence (gas), diarrhea, and nausea. Contrary to popular belief, lactose intolerance is not an exception to the rule. As a matter of fact, most adolescent and adult human beings are lactose intolerant to some degree, and after observing the table included in this article, you will realize the individuals most amenable to consuming dairy products over their lifetime are those of European descent. 

Research has been done to explore whether the discomfort of dairy intake for lactose intolerant individuals can be alleviated by consistent consumption. One study, for example, shows that through daily consumption of lactose-containing products over the course of three weeks, it appears that symptoms and measured lactose intolerance did not worsen over time; these results were consistent with previous studies. However, considering the reality that people of all ages consume dairy for years on end, a longer-term study may be necessary to see if this study’s findings hold true, or if other physiological responses arise.  

So, is it really necessary to force-feed dairy to people that naturally and biologically reject it? A growing number of specialists believe the answer is no, and the research to backup that rebuttal is starting to pile up. Be sure to check out our follow-up article which will dive deeper into the research behind propositions to overhaul current U.S. food recommendations, and why dairy as a universal, life-long source of calcium and vitamin D, may be a big mistake. 

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Lactose Intolerance Prevalence by Demographic
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In the meantime, as the debate continues over whether dairy should be as heavily promoted, here are some non-dairy alternatives to obtain your current daily requirements of vitamin D and calcium:     

Vitamin D

* Fish

* Orange juice with fortified vitamin D

* Mushroom

* Fortified almond milk

Calcium

* Leafy greens (kale, spinach, collard greens)

* Seeds (sesame, flax seeds)

* Broccoli

 

* Beans

 

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