Peanut allergy treatment ‘a success’.


Catherine Tooley and her daughter Elizabeth on their part in the study

Doctors say a potential treatment for peanut allergy has transformed the lives of children taking part in a large clinical trial.

The 85 children had to eat peanut protein every day – initially in small doses, but ramped up during the study.

The findings, published in the Lancet, suggest 84% of allergic children could eat the equivalent of five peanuts a day after six months.

Experts have warned that the therapy is not yet ready for widespread use.

Peanuts are the most common cause of fatal allergic reactions to food.

“Start Quote

The trial has been an experience and adventure that has changed my life and I’ve had so much fun, but I still hate peanuts”

Lena BardenAge 11

There is no treatment so the only option for patients is to avoid them completely, leading to a lifetime of checking every food label before a meal.

Build up

The trial, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, tried to train the children’s immune systems to tolerate peanut protein.

Every day they were given a peanut protein powder – starting off on a dose equivalent to one 70th of a peanut.

The theory was that patients started at the extremely low dose, well below the threshold for an allergic response.

Once a fortnight the dose was increased while the children were in hospital, in case there was any reaction, and then they continued taking the higher dose at home.

The majority of patients learned to tolerate the peanut.

Case study: Niamh Rooney

Birthday cake

Claire Rooney describes the daily anxieties of having a daughter with multiple food allergies.

Lena Barden, 11, from Histon in Cambridgeshire, said: “It meant a trip to the hospital every two weeks.

“A year later I could eat five whole peanuts with no reaction at all.

“The trial has been an experience and adventure that has changed my life and I’ve had so much fun, but I still hate peanuts!”

‘Dramatic transformation’

One of the researchers, Dr Andrew Clark, told the BBC: “It really transformed their lives dramatically; this really comes across during the trial.

“It’s a potential treatment and the next step is to make it available to patients, but there will be significant costs in providing the treatment – in the specialist centres and staff and producing the peanut to a sufficiently high standard.”

Fellow researcher Dr Pamela Ewan added: “This large study is the first of its kind in the world to have had such a positive outcome, and is an important advance in peanut allergy research.”

But she said further studies would be needed and that people should not try this on their own as this “should only be done by medical professionals in specialist settings”.

The research has been broadly welcomed by other researchers in the field, but some concerns about how any therapy could be introduced have been raised.

How to spot potentially life-threatening allergic reactions and how to deal with them

Caution

Prof Gideon Lack, who is running a peanut allergy trial at the Evelina Children’s Hospital in London, told the BBC: “This is a really important research step in trying to improve our management of peanut allergy, but is not yet ready for use in clinical practice.

“We need a proper risk assessment needs to be done to ensure we will not make life more dangerous for these children.

“Start Quote

This large study is the first of its kind in the world to have had such a positive outcome, and is an important advance in peanut allergy research”

Dr Pamela EwanCambridge University Hospitals

He warned that 60% of people with a peanut allergy were also allergic to other nuts so a carefree lifestyle would rarely be an option.

Prof Barry Kay, from the department of allergy and clinical immunology at Imperial College London, said: “The real issues that still remain include how long the results will last, and whether the positive effects might lead affected individuals to have a false sense of security.

“Another issue to address is whether there will be long term side-effects of repeated peanut exposure even where full allergic reaction does not occur, such as inflammation of the oesophagus.

“So, this study shows encouraging results that add to the current literature, but more studies are needed to pin down these issues before the current advice to peanut allergy sufferers, which is to avoid eating peanuts, is changed.”

Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services at Allergy UK, said: “The fantastic results of this study exceed expectation.

“Peanut allergy is a particularly frightening food allergy, causing constant anxiety of a reaction from peanut traces.

“This is a major step forward in the global quest to manage it.”

Prof Simon Murch, an allergy expert at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This is clearly a promising paper but it certainly isn’t a cure.

“Nevertheless this study does point towards a promising new direction of therapy and once further testing has been carried out, and techniques refined, it may prove to be a therapy with widespread use in hospitals in future.”

But he added: ” This is not something that should be undertaken at home, or indeed outside specialist centres.”

Dry California cannot deliver water


Small pool of water is surrounded by cracked earth at the Almaden Reservoir (28 January 2014)
Farmers said the announcement was “a terrible blow”

California’s water agency has announced it may for the first time be unable to deliver water to local agencies, amid a worsening drought.

Two-thirds of state residents and 1m acres (404,500 hectares) of farmland get part or all of their drinking and irrigation supplies from the agency.

A state-wide drought was declared earlier this month, as the largest reservoirs sank to record low levels.

Forecasters have warned 2014 could be California’s driest year on record.

The extreme conditions have already caused a wildfire that destroyed homes in the Los Angeles area.

Previous extremely dry years led to catastrophic wildfire seasons in California in 2003 and 2007.

‘Drought is real’

It is the first time in the water agency’s history that it has predicted a so-called “zero allocation”, which will affect around 25m people.

State governor Jerry Brown said the announcement was a “stark reminder that California’s drought is real”.

He urged residents to conserve water, suggesting they avoid flushing toilets unnecessarily and to turn off the tap while shaving.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the state’s farming federation called the news “a terrible blow”.

The water originates from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

It is delivered to local agencies via a vast network of reservoirs, pipelines, aqueducts and pumping stations.

The 29 agencies that draw from the state’s water-delivery system have other sources, Associated Press reports, although these too have been badly hit.

Car sits at the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir (28 January 2014)A car sits in dried and cracked earth of what was the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir
No swimming sign at the Almaden Reservoir (28 January 2014)Residents have been urged to double their water conservation efforts
Houseboats docked at Holiday Harbor (23 January 2014)These houseboats lie docked in Shasta Lake, which is 100 feet (30 metres) below its normal levels
Dying grass and trees near Shasta Lake (23 January 2014)
The dry conditions have heightened the risk of wildfires

Dead eyes ‘may give blind sight’


Human eye
The necessary cells can be found in the back of everyone’s eyes

Cells taken from the donated eyes of dead people may be able to give sight to the blind, researchers suggest.

Tests in rats, reported in Stem Cells Translational Medicine, showed the human cells could restore some vision to completely blind rats.

The team at University College London said similar results in humans would improve quality of life, but would not give enough vision to read.

Human trials should begin within three years.

Donated corneas are already used to improve some people’s sight, but the team at the Institute for Ophthalmology, at UCL, extracted a special kind of cell from the back of the eye.

These Muller glia cells are a type of adult stem cell capable of transforming into the specialised cells in the back of the eye and may be useful for treating a wide range of sight disorders.

“Start Quote

This interesting study shows that Muller glial cells are another viable avenue of exploration for cell therapy in retinal diseases”

Dr Paul Colville-NashMedical Research Council

In the laboratory, these cells were chemically charmed into becoming rod cells which detect light in the retina.

Injecting the rods into the backs of the eyes of completely blind rats partially restored their vision.

Brain scans showed that 50% of the electrical signals between the eye and the brain were recovered by the treatment.

One of the researchers, Prof Astrid Limb, told the BBC what such a change would mean in people: “They probably wouldn’t be able to read, but they could move around and detect a table in a room.

“They would be able to identify a kettle and cup to make a cup of tea. Their quality of life would be so much better, even if they could not read or watch TV.”

The retina
The different layers of the retina, with the light-sensing rods and cones at the top

The cells might be able to help patients with disorders such as macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa.

Human stem cell trials are already taking place using material taken from embryos.

However, this is ethically charged and takes several months to prepare the cells. The Muller glia cells can be ready within a week.

Prof Limb commented: “They are more easily sourceable and very easy to handle in the lab so from that perspective they’re better, but they do express antigens that could induce an immune response.”

It means the donated cells could be rejected like an organ transplant.

The next step is to prepare the cells as a clinical grade treatment in order for human trials to begin.

The researchers believe it could take three years before such a trial takes place.

Dr Paul Colville-Nash, the regenerative medicine programme manager at the Medical Research Council, which funded the study, said: “This interesting study shows that Muller glial cells are another viable avenue of exploration for cell therapy in retinal diseases.

“It’s not clear yet which approach will be most effective when these experimental techniques enter human trials, which is why it is important to progress research across all avenues in pursuit of a cure for sight loss.”

X-rays set to reveal electrons’ dance.


X-ray diffraction, being celebrated in this International Year of Crystallography, has allowed us to peer inside matter to see where the atoms sit. But might it also let us see inside atoms themselves? That’s the promise in a theoretical study by Henri Suominen and Adam Kirrander of Edinburgh University, UK, who show that in principle the very intense, ultra-short x-ray pulses produced by free-electron laser (FEL) sources will be capable of revealing the motions of electrons in real time as they hop between different energy states in atoms and molecules. If experiments bear this out, the technique might be able to track the movements of electrons in biochemical processes or solar cells, and perhaps guide the design of better optical and electrochemical materials.

‘Imaging electronic motion in real time is extremely appealing and can lead to fundamental new discoveries,’ says Oriol Vendrell of the Center for Free Electron Science in Hamburg, a collaboration between the university and the DESY synchrotron.

Atoms are excited by a pump laser (red beam) and probed by an x-ray pulse (blue beam)

Kirrander and Suominen have calculated the diffraction patterns that would result from scattering x-rays from carefully prepared ‘wave packets’ of electrons in exotic atoms called Rydberg atoms. These are atoms in which the outermost electrons sit in very high-energy quantum states far above those of the ‘core’ electrons. Rydberg atoms can be made by using laser pulses to excite the outer electrons into large-radius orbits.

The idea is to use laser ‘pump’ pulses to sculpt a particular wave packet which changes over time, and to use very short x-ray pulses produced by free-electron lasers to produce a series of diffraction patterns from the electrons, from which their spatial distribution can be reconstructed. It’s the wave packet itself – a quantum superposition of individual electron wavefunctions – that acts as the diffraction grid.

Model atoms

The researchers look at Rydberg atoms because the rearrangements of the wave packets are relatively slow – on the order of several picoseconds (10-12s). Electrons in ordinary atoms and molecules tend to get rearranged by photochemical processes hundreds to thousands of times faster. What’s more, the outer electrons in Rydberg atoms have orbital radii hundreds of times larger than the core electrons, making it easier to spot changes in electron density caused by the Rydberg electron scattering from the much smaller, denser core. Kirrander and Suominen show that, for a particular wave packet in a Rydberg atom prepared from argon, clear differences in the diffraction pattern and thus electron distribution should be evident over roughly 6 picosecond intervals.

‘This experiment will have to be tried,’ says Vendrell. ‘The main difficulty will be collecting enough signal at the detector’ to resolve changes in the scattering pattern.

Will it be possible to see these processes in a system less exotic than Rydberg atoms, though? ‘The pulse duration at the free-electron lasers is sufficiently short to resolve much faster processes than Rydberg dynamics,’ says Kirrander. Vendrell agrees that resolving ‘the timescales of tens to hundred femtoseconds characteristic of atomic motions in chemical reactions are within current FEL capabilities’.

‘One could certainly imagine trying to follow an electron in a biochemical reaction or in a nanowire,’ says Kirrander. But he adds that ‘such experiments are quite far down the line’, and thinks that solar cells or organic light-emitting diodes, where the electron dynamics are slower, might be stronger candidates in the near term.

‘This research is headed towards a better theoretical and experimental understanding of electron dynamics and photochemical processes, making it possible to design materials with specific optical, electric, photochemical or mechano-optical properties,’ says Kirrander. He says that today such materials and molecules are often made and discovered by chance and then modified using chemical intuition, but thinks that ‘the process will grow to become much more targeted and based on detailed predictions – to rely on de novo design rather than serendipitous discovery’.

“Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products” .


Children need real food, not food products. They need to be taught how to eat properly from a young age. That is the indisputable responsibility of parents, except that many parents listen instead to the insidious whispers of food corporations, telling them what’s appropriate for kids to eat. Parents then buy the processed food products sold by these companies, with their grandiose promises of nutrition, and end up causing long-term damage that extends well beyond the ten seconds it takes for a kid to wolf down a plastic-wrapped snack.

Outside the Box book cover

Author Jeannie Marshall believes we are facing a serious nutritional and social crisis the world over. In her excellent new book, “Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products,” she explores the numerous effects that processed food has on individuals and society. From her vantage point in Rome, where she has lived for the past twelve years, Marshall is disturbed by the growing presence of food corporations that, despite what they may claim, are incapable of having the public’s best interest at heart because of what they sell. Three issues stood out the most for me while reading the book:

The widespread sale of processed foods leads to the loss of regional “food culture.” Even in a place like Italy, where foreigners assume the food traditions are secure forever, the food culture is slowly eroding as a generation grows up that doesn’t know how to prepare the basic foods that have defined Italian cuisine for centuries. Instead, they eat the processed shortcuts made by corporations that sell the exact same products in supermarkets all around the planet. That results in a tragic homogenization of taste.

Processed food has terrible nutritional value. No wonder we face a global health crisis. Corporations use science to advertise their products’ integrity, convincing parents that these modified, enriched foods are superior to the traditional foods that previous generations have eaten. (Consider baby formula, which was originally developed to stave off infant death, but is now called “pediatric fast food.”) And yet, a diet comprised of fresh, local foods that’s prepared at home and contains many colourful vegetables is all that’s needed.

When children become accustomed to food products, they’re unable to enjoy the delicious taste of real food. It’s a misconception that children will only eat vegetables that are masked in sweet, greasy, and salty tastes. Rather, they will eat what they’ve been taught to eat, and that’s up to parents. That training is as essential as brushing one’s teeth and taking showers.

Marshall believes the future lies in home cooking. People need to realize that the corporations have been feeding us lies all along, saying we don’t have time to cook. Healthy, delicious meals are absolutely possible to whip up quickly. It simply requires a priority shift – realizing that we must find time to cook if we take parenting seriously – and reclaimed knowledge from our lost food traditions. “Outside the Box” is an inspiring and accessible read. Read it, and know that we can reverse this awful trend and regain control over nutrition by banishing corporations from our kitchens.

NOTE: This book is called “The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me about Why Children Need Real Food” in the United States. “Outside the Box” is the Canadian title.

It takes 53 gallons of water to produce a single egg.


Everything we eat is flooded with “virtual water,” or water used indirectly to produce food from cradle to grave. In fact, 70% of the world’s water consumptionfeeds the agriculture industry, and demand for fresh water is increasing at a rate of one trillion liters a year. The GRACE Communications Foundation wants people thinking more critically about the water in their food, and has released a report that includes the average global water footprints for some of our most beloved—and resource-hogging—foods.

1. Slice of pizza = 42 gallons of water

That would be 18 gallons for the flour, 21 gallons for the cheese, and nearly 3 for the sauce. Mozzarella, it turns out, is a real water suck, as is any animal product. Of course, this is the global average, and water use per slice varies from country to country. French pizza has less than half this footprint, the US just about hits the average mark, and Chinese pizza is slightly more waterlogged.

2. A dozen eggs = 636 gallons

That’s right, every single egg requires an average of 53 gallons of water to produce. Chickens require water-intensive grain feed (about two pounds per every pound of chicken protein produced) as well as water for drinking and irrigation.

3. A pound of lettuce = 30 gallons

In general, vegetables take much less water to produce than animal products: That’s why GRACE’s report suggests “Meatless Mondays” as a step to conserve water—you don’t need to go vegan, but every bit helps. Even better news for salad lovers in the US: Lettuce’s footprint is less than half the global average there.

4. A loaf of bread = 288 gallons

Wheat is big. Between 1996 and 2005, global wheat production contributed 15% to the total water footprint of all crops. Make that sandwich open-face.

5. A bar of chocolate = 317 gallons

The report actually calculated the water footprint of a pound of chocolate, but that’s probably more than you eat in a sitting. Or a week, hopefully. But with one pound touting 3,170 gallons of water and a classic Hershey bar weighing 1.55 oz, or about 0.1 lbs, a single candy bar is still pretty wet. Say it ain’t so. You can find more water footprints here, though they’re calculated in litres per kilogram.

What Actually Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment.


“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who studies internal time — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.