Motherhood Has a Lasting, Cellular Impact!

In pregnancy, the placenta is a barrier between the baby and the mother (Gray's Anatomy Image)
A very interesting writer named Amanda Read is a Facebook friend of mine. She has an amazingly diverse reading list, and she often posts things that she has read and found interesting. A while back, she posted a story about how a baby’s cells reside in his or her mother long after the baby is born, and that they may aid the mother in healing certain kinds of tissues. When I read the story she posted, I immediately expressed my skepticism. After all, we have an amazing immune system that fights any cells that are identified as foreign. Even though the baby develops in the mother’s body, there is a placenta that forms a barrier between the mother and the baby. It was obvious to me that a baby’s cells could not pass across the placenta, because the mother’s immune system would immediately attack them as foreign cells.

Well…it turns out that I was dead wrong. When I actually looked into the story, I found that while the story was a bit biased, the fact is that a baby’s cells do, indeed, cross the placenta, and they do, indeed, stay with the mother for a long, long time. In addition, the mother’s cells cross the placenta and stay with the baby for a long, long time. This phenomenon is called fetomaternal microchimerism, and believe it or not, scientists have known about for quite some time.

The first paper that discussed this phenomenon was written by Herzenberg and his colleagues in 1979. Published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, the paper details how they found cells with Y chromosomes in mothers after pregnancy, but only if the baby was a male.1 Since a woman has no Y chromosomes, it was clear that the cells they found didn’t belong to the woman. The authors didn’t have the ability to use genetic testing to confirm that the cells belonged to the baby, but they showed that these Y-chromosome-containing cells appeared only when the mother had a baby boy. Thus, it was clear that the cells must be coming from the baby.

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Stem Cells: Induced Ones Make The Same Proteins as Embryonic Ones

This illustration shows the first few steps of embryonic development. Embryonic stem cells, which are pluripotent, are colored blue. (Click for credit.)

When your mother’s egg cell was fertilized by your father’s sperm cell, the result was a single cell, called a zygote. That cell had all the information necessary to develop into the person you are today. In other words, it could produce everything necessary to build you. So that single cell had the capability of developing into any human cell. We call such cells totipotent cells. Of course, in order to make all those cells, the zygote had to start reproducing, resulting in an embryo.

As this cell (and its progeny) reproduced, the number of cells in the embryo grew. When that reproduction had produced about 12 cells, you were in the morula stage of your development, and on a microscopic level, you resembled a mulberry. As your cells continued to reproduce, they formed a hollow sphere called a blastocyst. At one end of the hollow sphere, there was a bunch of cells called the inner cell mass, which is represented by the blue cells in the illustration above. That inner cell mass developed into all the organs and tissues that make up your body.1

Interestingly enough, however, the cells in that inner cell mass were no longer totipotent. They could not, for example, form the kind of cells that make up the outer layer of the blastocyst, which are shown in yellow in the illustration above. However, they could end up becoming any of the cells in any of the organs or tissues of your body. As a result, they are called pluripotent cells. As they continued to reproduce, they started “choosing” what kind of cell they would become. Some of those pluripotent cells, for example, became skin cells. Once they did that, we say that the cells had differentiated. This means they lost their pluripotency, and would no longer be able to become some other type of cell. As a result, they would end up doing the same job for the rest of their lives.

Pluripotent cells are often called stem cells, and they have a lot of potential in medicine. After all, if someone suffers from severe organ damage, I could theoretically get his or her body to rebuild that damaged organ if I supplied it with enough stem cells. The stem cells could then differentiate into whatever cells are needed to replace those that died when the organ was damaged. While this sounds wonderful, there is a problem. The most ready source of pluripotent cells come from the blastocyst stage of an embryo’s development. If I remove those pluripotent cells from the blastocyst, I have embryonic stem cells, but unfortunately, the embryo dies.

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A New Kind of Vaccine

The mosquito that carries dengue
(Click Image for credit)
As I have mentioned previously, vaccines are one the greatest medical advances God has allowed us to discover. They work by “pumping” your immune system so that it is ready to repel a pathogen (like a virus or bacterium) before you are infected. That way, your immune system doesn’t have to figure out how to fight the pathogen. It already knows what to do, and that gives it a head start, making your body much less likely to succomb to the disease.

Of course, the best way to prevent infectious disease is to prevent the infection to begin with. We try to do that with good sanitary practices, but they can only go so far. Regardless of how well we clean our surroundings, pathogens still manage to infect our bodies. In fact, some research is now indicating that we might be a bit too sanitary for our own good.

Medical historians are convinced that the rise in polio the U.S. experienced in the late 1940s and early 1950s was caused by good sanitary practices. When sanitary practices were rather poor, people were regularly exposed to small amounts of the polio virus, usually when they were babies and therefore had the extra protection given to them by the antibodies they received through their mothers’ milk. Their immune systems were able to conquer the weak exposure to the virus with the help of their mothers’ antibodies, and thus they became immune. As sanitary practices improved, however, fewer people were exposed to small amounts of the virus as infants. As a result, when they were exposed to concentrated amounts of the virus (from a person who already had the disease, for example), they would succumb to the disease.1

Some medical researchers take the lesson from the history of polio a step further. They believe in the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that if a child grows up in an environment that is too clean, he or she will be more likely to contract a host of diseases later on in life, because the child’s immune system was not challenged enough early in life. While the data are not clear enough to determine whether or not the hygiene hypothesis is reasonable, there are some interesting studies that lend support to it.

So…is there a way to prevent infection of a specific parasite without making our surroundings “too clean” and without injecting something into people? The surprising answer might be, “Yes!”

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What Makes Bone So Strong?

Even this electron microscope image of hydroxyapatite crystals in bone doesn't reveal its amazing secret.
(Public domain image)
Bone is a truly incredible substance. It is as strong as steel but at as light as aluminum. Not only is it strong, but it is surprisingly flexible as well. As is the case with most things God made, human technology cannot come close to producing something with bone’s amazing properties. Consider, for example, the work of Antoni Tomsia at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. He and his colleagues are trying to artificially produce something with the characteristics of bone, but they simply cannot come up with anything as elegant and sophisticated as bone. He says:

People want a strong, light, and porous material, which is almost a contradiction in terms, but nature does it…Bone is made from calcium phosphate and collagen, which are both extremely weak. But nature mixes them together at room temperature and without toxic chemical [sic] to create something that is very tough — this fascinates us.

What makes bone so special? The short answer is that we don’t really know. However, we are learning. For quite some time now we have known that bone is a mixture of many things, principal among them a protein called collagen and a calcium compound called hydroxyapatite. The collagen gives bone its flexibility, while the hydroxyapatite gives bone its strength.

However, the hydroxyapatite in bone is stronger than hydroxyapatite made in the lab. Why? It has to do with the size of the crystals. When hydroxyapatite is made artificially, the individual crystals that form are very large. In bone, the crystals are very small, on the order of 3 billionths of a meter long. These nanocrystals have long been thought to be the reason that hydroxyapatite in bone is so strong. However, scientists haven’t been able to understand why the nanocrystals stay so small in bone.

Now Klaus Schmidt-Rohr and his colleagues might just have figured that part out!

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Debate on Vaccination Vanishes from Anti-Vaccination Website

On Monday, December 13th, I debated Dr. Boyd Haley on the question “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I took the scientific position, which is no. It was sponsored by the International Medical Council on Vaccination, which produces all sorts of anti-vaccine misinformation. Prior to December 13th, they publicized the debate heavily, and their website indicated that a recording of the debate would be posted after the debate was finished.

Interestingly enough, the recording was never posted on their website. Now something even more interesting has happened. Currently, there is absolutely no mention of the debate on their website at all. If you Google the word “debate” and restrict the domain to the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s website, you find several addresses where it was once mentioned:

www.vaccinationcouncil.org/2010/12/04/debate-on-vaccination/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/tag/debate/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/page/4/
www.vaccinationcouncil.org/page/2/

However, if you go to those addresses now, you get either an error message or a list of other articles. If you search for “debate” using the search box on the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s website, you find nothing related to the debate.

Does this surprise me? Not really. Does it disappoint you? If so, don’t worry. You can watch the debate here. (Thanks to Matt Fig for converting it to Youtube format.) Once you watch it, perhaps you will understand why such a heavily-promoted event has been wiped off the website of the group that hosted it!

NOTE: In addition to uploading the debate to Youtube, Matt Fig found the International Medical Council on Vaccination’s original post publicizing the debate:

https://web.archive.org/web/20101210075650/http://www.vaccinationcouncil.org/2010/12/04/debate-on-vaccination/

You can watch the debate here

On Monday, December 13th, I debated Dr. Boyd Haley, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky, on the question “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I took the scientific position, which is that they do not. In my previous post on the subject, I noted that if you want to see the shoddy science promoted by those who believe that vaccines cause autism, you should watch the debate.

Well, despite the technical problems associated with the debate, I think it really did show how shoddy the science is on the anti-vaccination side. However, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can watch the debate yourself:

Click Here To Watch The Debate

Thanks to Matt Fig for converting it to Youtube format!

If you are having trouble viewing that file, here is a larger file that is not compressed. You shouldn’t need anything other than Windows Media Player to watch it.

Click here for the larger file

Debate: Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

The International Medical Council on Vaccination disseminates a lot of misinformation regarding vaccines. It claims to offer resources that will aid in “critical thinking for a critical dilemma.” Unfortunately, it does quite the opposite. It uses scaremongering and shoddy science in an effort to get people to stop giving critical medical care to their children.

They will be hosting a live debate on Monday, December 13th at 8 PM Central Time. The title of the debate is “Do Vaccines Cause Autism?” I have been asked to defend the scientific answer, which of course, is no. The debate is free, but you should sign up for it in advance. You can do that here.

If you have been deceived by those who want you to believe that vaccines cause autism, you might want to attend the debate so you can learn the actual science behind vaccination. If you know the science behind vaccines and therefore realize that they don’t cause autism, the debate might still be an interesting thing to attend so that you can see the shoddy science used by the anti-vaccination movement.

The Legacy of Anti-Vaccination Misinformation

It is sad that parents are misinformed by those who are against vaccination. It is sadder still that children are not as healthy as a result. The saddest thing of all, however, is how innocent children suffer because of anti-vaccination misinformation. This year, we are witnessing the fruits of this misinformation: the suffering and death of innocent children.

According to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 4,461 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) reported throughout the state so far this year. The majority of those are confirmed cases, but 19% are considered probable cases, while 18% are merely suspected cases. This is the largest number of reported cases since 1955. At least 217 of these cases resulted in hospitalization, and 9 resulted in death!

What is causing this sudden surge of whooping cough? Well, there are actually two effects. First, like most contagious diseases, whooping cough goes through cycles of years when it is not very prevalent and years when it is very prevalent. This year is in the “very prevalent” part of the cycle. Second, over the past few years, there has been a significant reduction in the vaccination rate, due to misinformation promulgated by those who are against vaccinations.

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A Really Stupid Quote

This quote seems to be making the rounds on facebook right now:

Saying that your vaccinated child is at risk of disease because of my un-vaccinated child is like saying I have to take birth control pills so YOU won’t get pregnant.

Of course, this is nonsense on two levels. First, it is a bad analogy, because pregnancy isn’t contagious. You can’t “catch” pregnancy from a person who is pregnant, but you most certainly can catch vaccine-preventable diseases from those who have them.

Second, unvaccinated children most certainly can spread disease to vaccinated children. For example, in 2005 an unvaccinated teen went to Romania on a missions trip and brought measles back to her church. 34 people in the church were infected, 2 of which were vaccinated. One of the 34 required six days of ventilator support in order to survive.

If you have been fooled by those who use misinformation to try to keep you from vaccinating, please learn the scientific data behind the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

Are Autism Rates Really Rising?

In a previous post, I discussed the rise in autism that seems to be occurring in the United States. In that discussion, I made it clear that genetically-based diseases can increase over time. One commenter (Eric) suggested that autism is not rising all that rapidly in the United States. This prompted a spirited exchange, which I enjoyed, and I hope Eric enjoyed as well.

The comments on that article are now closed, but Eric recently commented on another post to add a link related to that previous discussion. It is an excellent link, so I want to share it in a post that clearly relates to autism.

In essence, the author (an academic clinical neurologist at Yale) is skeptical that there is any significant increase in autism itself. Instead, he thinks that broadened diagnostic criteria for autism as well as increased surveillance have caused the number of diagnosed cases of autism to increase, but the actual number of autism cases has not increased much over the years. We are just doing a better job of diagnosing it, watching for it, etc.

You should read the article and see what you think. I personally think the Bearman studies he mentions (it was a series of studies, not just a single study – see this New Scientist article) are the most convincing, and they argue that there is a real increase in the rate of autism. Even the author of the original link seems to be willing to admit that increasing parental age (which I highlighted in my previous post) is causing at least some real increase in the prevalence of autism.