Astounding: Your Baby Can Heal You!

This Facebook Meme is actually correct!

I avoided Facebook for a long time, but a few years ago, I finally gave in. Not long after I started connecting with long lost friends and finding out what everyone was eating, I learned the joys of Facebook memes. Every day now, I see lots of pictures with snarky sayings on them coming across my news feed. Some of them are funny, and some try to make a point. Many times, the ones that try to make a point are just dead wrong. They include either outright falsehoods or an incredibly mischaracterized fact. Thus, whenever I see a “science meme” or a “political meme,” I generally ignore it.

However, when the meme at the top of this article came across my newsfeed, I had to investigate it. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that almost two years ago, a talented writer named Amanda Read posted a story about how a baby’s cells reside in his or her mother long after the baby is born, and they may aid the mother in healing certain kinds of tissues. I was incredibly skeptical of the story, but when I did some investigation, I found out that it was true. Later on, I learned about a study that showed how a baby leaves DNA behind in his mother’s brain, and those “fetal remnants” might even fight against neurological disorders!

Since we are still barely scratching the surface in our understanding of the the amazing design behind pregnancy, I decided to pay attention to this Facebook meme. Of course, I knew that the statement on the left is true. All sorts of things pass through the placenta from the mother to the child, and that includes blood proteins which fight disease and shape the development of the baby’s B-cells.1 Those B-cells will affect the child’s ability to fight disease for the rest of his or her life.

I was, however, very skeptical of the statement on the right. Surprisingly, there is strong scientific evidence to back it up!

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Poop Transplants Treat Clostridium difficile Infections!

Clostridium difficile from a stool sample, magnified 3,006x (public domain image fron the CDC)

Clostridium difficile is a bacterium that produces toxins which can kill intestinal cells and cause severe inflammation of the intestinal walls. Mild infections from this bacterium can cause diarrhea, while severe infections can cause death. Over time, C. difficile infections have gotten worse. As one medical resource states:1

C. difficile infection has transformed from a nuisance into a potentially life-threatening illness with an attributable mortality rate of up to 16.7%.

The typical treatment for severe cases of C. difficile infection is a round of strong antibiotics, but that doesn’t always work. A significant number of patients end up experiencing one or more recurring infections within 60 days.2 As a result, medical researchers are trying to come up with new ways to treat this infection.

In a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tested an…interesting…approach. They took 43 patients who had a C. difficile infection and split them into three groups. The first received the standard antibiotic treatment (in this case, 500 milligrams of vancomycin four times per day for 14 days). The second received the standard antibiotic treatment plus a bowl lavage 4 or 5 days into the treatment. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a bowel lavage involves flushing out the intestines. It is usually done to prepare the intestine for medical imaging. The third group was given a shortened round of antibiotics (500 milligrams of vancomycin four times per day for 4 or 5 days), a bowel lavage, and then a poop transplant.

Yes, you read that right. After the bowel lavage, the patients were given a mixture of water, salt, and the feces from a healthy donor. Now don’t worry. They didn’t have to eat or even smell the stuff. It was sent into their intestine through a sterile tube that went up the nose, down the esophagus, through the stomach, and into the start of the small intestine. While the process sounds incredibly gross, the results were amazing!

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Male DNA in Female Brains? Yes!

Male DNA was found in 63% of the women studied.
(Public domain image)
A gene called DYS14 is found only on the Y chromosome in human beings. Of course, only males have a Y chromosome, so it is reasonable to assume that the only place you will ever find this gene is in men, right? Wrong! William F. N. Chan and his colleagues examined the brains of 59 deceased women, and they found the gene residing in 37 of the brains studied! In other words, 63% of the deceased women studied had male DNA in their brains. Interestingly enough, in most of those brains, the DNA was found in several different places!1

How in the world did male DNA get into these women’s brains? The researchers aren’t sure, because they don’t have detailed medical histories for most of the women. However, the most likely explanation is that the DNA comes from the male children that these women carried. I have written about this phenomenon, called fetomaternal microchimerism, before. As I mentioned in that article, when I first heard about a baby leaving cellular remains inside his or her mother, I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. However, I was wrong. There is solid evidence to suggest that not only do babies leave a lasting, cellular imprint on their mothers, mothers do the same for their babies.

However, the possibility that children leave some of their DNA behind in their mother’s brain is very surprising. After all, the cells that make up the brain are incredibly sensitive. In fact, the contents of your own blood are toxic to your brain cells. As a result, you have an elaborately designed blood-brain barrier that shields your brain cells from your blood. This barrier is so vigilant that it allows only certain substances (such as the glucose and electrolytes that the brain cells need) to pass through it. As a result, your brain cells are protected from the majority of substances found in your bloodstream.2

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Is A Knee Replacement on That Playlist?

The "brains" of this surgical device is an iPod (Click for credit.)

Last month, I wrote an article about an experiment involving spiders and an iPod touch. The results of the experiment were interesting, but I also thought it was really cool that an iPod was integral to the experiment’s design. Well, I just learned about something that I think is is even cooler. It turns out that an iPod touch is being used to assist in knee-replacement surgeries!

The system is called “Dash,” and it is made by a company called Brainlab. It consists of several accessories, such as probes, that attach to an iPod touch. Once everything is sterilized, the surgeon can use the probes to make measurements on the patient while the surgery is in progress. The iPod can then do some calculations on those measurements and show an image that will help the doctor install the artificial knee as accurately as possible. It can also use its WiFi capabilities to send those results to any other device, such as an iPad, if the surgeon wants a larger, more detailed image.

Why would a surgeon use a device like this? Well, in order for the replacement knee to function well, it must be aligned properly. In conventional knee replacement surgeries, the surgeon inserts a metal rod into the femur (the bone above the knee) to help with this alignment. Unfortunately, that process can increase the risk of certain side effects, such as fat embolisms. When using this iPod-based device, there is no need for an alignment rod. In addition, a surgeon who has been using it for more than a year says that the device provides better alignment than the conventional method. This leads to a larger range of motion for the artificial joint. Also, patients experience less pain and swelling after surgery.

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Remember That Nuclear Disaster in Japan?

Satellite image taken on March 16, 2011, showing reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant leaking radioactive gas into the air.

On March 11 of 2011, the most powerful earthquake known to have hit Japan struck near the east coast of Honshu. The earthquake generated a tsunami that reached a height of more than 130 feet. Just last month, the Japanese National Police agency reported that there were at least 15,870 people who died, an additional 6,114 who were injured, and 2,814 who are still missing as a result.1 Obviously, it was a disaster of truly stunning proportions.

One of the many things that happened as a consequence of the disaster is that some of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant went into meltdown, and radioactive substances were leaked into the ocean and released into the air. People in a 12-mile radius around the power plant were evacuated so that they would not be exposed to too much radiation. As a result of the meltdown, there is increasing political pressure for Japan to end its reliance on nuclear power. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Prime Minister Yoshihiko’s party has recommended that Japan phase out all nuclear power by the year 2030.

Back when the nuclear disaster was in the news, I commented on it (here and here). Since then, I have been following the scientific literature to see what those who have been monitoring the situation are saying regarding its long-term effects. Recently, a study and some commentary on the study were published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, and they are surprising, to say the least.

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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:

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: