Quick Links

From Our Contributors

Subscribe to From Our Contributors feed
Updated: 26 min 7 sec ago

‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

Thu, 05/12/2016 - 04:32

In the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Read more

‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

Mon, 05/09/2016 - 10:36

In the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Read more

Hepatitis A From Frozen Berries

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 08:45
On April 15, 2016, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a food recall warning regarding the possible contamination with Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease, of the frozen fruit product, “Nature's Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend”. Canadians have been advised that the food recall is in effect in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the product has been sold. As of April 22, 2016, there are eleven related Hepatitis A cases in three provinces (1): Ontario (8 cases), Quebec (2 cases), and Newfoundland and Labrador (1 case).   While it is frightening to know that Hepatitis A can be contracted by eating frozen berries, a product that is supposed to be healthy, coming into contact with hepatitis A can be quite easy. Hepatitis A is usually linked with the lack of potable water and inadequate sanitation,  and the virus is spread mainly by the faecal-oral route. It can be acquired from any food and drinks prepared by a person who is infected, as an  infected person can carry, due to improper hygiene, traces of their faeces when preparing refreshments. Shellfish derived from waters containing sewage can also carry hepatitis A. The frozen berries sold at Costco in Canada were at some point contaminated with hepatitis A from at least one infected worker (during harvest, manufacturing or processing) who was handling the berries, and who did not take preventative hygienic measures such as frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and the use of gloves. After infection with hepatitis A, symptoms usually reveal themselves two to seven weeks after viral infection. Fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, jaundice, dark urine, vomiting, and fatigue are all symptoms. Although cases usually last one to two weeks, a few severe cases can last several months before recovery, and some people can die from liver failure. People with pre-existing liver conditions are at a greater risk of severe illness. Older people tend to get sicker than younger people after infection.The disease is not chronic (there is usually no permanent liver damage), and lifetime immunity is acquired either from recovery after infection, or through immunization with the hepatitis A vaccine.   The hepatitis A virus, a picornavirus, is of an icosahedral shape and does not contain an envelope. It possesses a single-stranded RNA packaged in a protein capsid. There are three different numbered human genotypes of the virus, but type IA is the most commonly occurring. Genetic sequencing of the virus can reveal which molecular subtype of the virus is associated with a particular outbreak (2), thus narrowing down unassociated cases of infection. To determine whether infection has occurred, a blood test to look for IgM anti-hepatitis A antibodies, a particular immune response, can detect the virus as early as two weeks after the initial infection.   Known as a “traveller's disease”, hepatitis A is usually associated with countries that are less developed, but it does and can occur in Canada. In industrialized countries, outbreaks of hepatitis A are often linked to contaminated produce (3). During March 2012, there was a small outbreak of hepatitis A in British Columbia, Canada that was traced to pomegranate seeds in a frozen fruit product (4). April 2013 saw more than 70 cases of hepatitis A infection in four Nordic countries (5,6). In the United States, there were 165 confirmed cases of hepatitis A infection found across 10 states, in 2013 (7). This outbreak was traced to pomegranate arils found in a frozen berry product sold at Costco, and 44% of the infected patients were hospitalized. Frozen fruit can last for up to a year in the store, and hepatitis A can incubate for up to 50 days, so a hepatitis A outbreak is often detected only after many people have been infected (8). Case-control studies, where patients with (case) and without (control) a disease, such as hepatitis A, are compared retrospectively for frequency of exposure to a risk factor (such as the contaminated frozen fruit), and through this study method the source of the outbreak can be unraveled.   Costco is publicly offering free vaccination clinics to affected individuals of this recent 2016 outbreak, as vaccination can prevent the disease symptoms from occurring if given within two weeks of exposure (9). There are two options for post-exposure prophylaxis of hepatitis A. The first is the vaccine injection, which is an inactivated version of the virus. The second is immunoglobulin (IG), which is injected and consists of antibodies which fight the virus to prevent infection. It is a blood product produced from paid donors. An exposed individual who may be allergic to the vaccine may opt for the IG. A study comparing the two options found that immunoglobulin was slightly more effective than the vaccine (10). However, the vaccine offers a lifetime immunity, whereas the response of immunoglobulin against hepatitis A is only for three months after the IG administration-subsequent exposure to hepatitis A can still result in an infection. Individuals can get a pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination, which renders permanent immunity before any exposure, and travellers to countries where hepatitis A is endemic are required to receive the vaccination before leaving to their destination.   The recent 2016 hepatitis A outbreak in Canada from frozen fruit is only one of several similar outbreaks that have occurred in the past in different industrialized countries. Hepatitis A is spread through the faecal-oral route, and although it is more common in less developed nations where poor sanitation conditions are prevalent, improper hygiene during food handling can cause an outbreak.  Identifying the specific molecular subtype of hepatitis A can help trace which cases are associated with a particular outbreak. It is recommended that anyone handling food take proper precautions in food safety in order to prevent further hepatitis A outbreaks. If worried, one should obtain a pre-exposure vaccination to acquire permanent immunity to the virus. Read more

The Zika Crisis

Tue, 04/19/2016 - 22:45

In 2015, the Zika virus outbreak began in the northeast region of Brazil. According to the World Health Organization, there has been 3174 suspected cases of microcephaly in Brazil since January 2, 2016, including 38 deaths (1). The northeastern region of Brazil continues to be the area most affected, with the highest number of suspected cases. On April 13, 2016, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine which concluded that there is a direct causal relationship between prenatal exposure to Zika virus and the outcome of microcephaly and brain abnormalities in the exposed infants (2). While the common symptoms of Zika infection are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis lasting from several days to a week after exposure from an infected mosquito's bite, a recent study recounts two cases of patients who had contracted the Zika virus and later succumbed to acute disseminated encephalitis (ADEM) (3).  This is a condition in which the immune system attacks the body, producing swelling in the brain and spinal cord and damaging the myelin which serves to protectively encase nerve fibers. The same study also describes four patients who had Zika and then developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the body's peripheral myelin.

Zika virus is quickly spread through the bite of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, a mosquito that is usually associated with warmer climates. This species of mosquito bites during the day. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sent out a warning of the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil on May 2015, and on February 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). The PAHO lists the following areas where local transmission of Zika virus is active (4): Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bonaire, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Hondruas, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peurto Rico, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, US Virgin Islands, and Venezuela. Locally transmitted cases of Zika have been reported in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. There is potential for Zika virus to continue to spread to other countries due to the expanding range of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. A population of this species not carrying Zika was found in Capitol Hill, Washington, DC. Genetic analysis revealed that this particular mosquito population survived five winters in the area (5). Although theAedes aegypti is the species most responsible for spreading the Zika virus, other mosquito species in the Aedes genus can also transmit it to humans. Once the virus enters the bloodstream of a human through the bite of a female mosquito (the male mosquitoes do not bite), another female mosquito can acquire Zika by feeding upon the same host, which can then go on to infect another human. In an area with many Aedes mosquitoes, the process will repeat itself exponentially, leading to widespread viral transmission. A possible solution can be to use genetically modified mosquitoes that are male which reproduce with local female mosquitoes to yield offspring which do not live past the pupae stage. Oxitec (6), a British biotechnology company, developed such a mosquito which has already been released and tested successfully in the Cayman Islands in 2010, leading to a drastic 80 percent reduction in population of Aedes aegypti. Release of the same strain of GMO mosquitoes in the suburb of Juazeiro, Brazil in 2011 resulted in a 81-95 percent reduction of Aedes aegypti in the test region. It is also possible to breed mosquitoes to be genetically resistant to diseases such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever and Zika. Gamma radiation is being used in Brazil to sterilize male mosquitoes. Moscamed, a non-profit organization based in Brazil, took to breeding 12 million male mosquitoes per week, sterilizing them with the cobalt-60 irradiator, and then releasing them into select high-risk areas (7). The released sterile males mosquitoes then meet wild female mosquitoes, but no offspring can be produced. As there is no vaccine available right now, the current method of battling Zika virus is to reduce the population of Aedes mosquitoes.

It has been found that the Zika virus can also be transmitted sexually from an infected human male to his sexual partners via vaginal or anal sex (8), and that the virus can remain for a longer duration in semen than in blood. As of now, it is not known whether a woman can sexually spread Zika virus, or if it can be transmitted through saliva or vaginal fluids. Couples who are pregnant, or men who have travelled to areas affected by Zika are advised by the CDC to abstain from sex or use condoms.

The Zika virus is in the Flavivirus genus of viruses, which also include the West Nile virus, dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and yellow fever virus. As a flavivirus, the Zika virus is enveloped, has a capsid of icosahedral symmetry, and contains a single-stranded positive-sense RNA genome. The Zika genome is about 10.8 kilobase pairs long. The positive-sense RNA is significant because once the virus enters the host cell, this RNA viral genome can be directly translated into a viral polypeptide, which is then cleaved into structural proteins and proteins to aid in the replication process. The envelope (E) glycoprotein protruding from the membrane of the virus is used for attachment and entrance into human cells.  For the development of a potential vaccine for Zika virus, a segment of the E glycoprotein unique to the Zika virus can be used in the vaccine to mount an antibody-mediated immune response, possibly conferring immunity from future attacks of the virus.

The expanding range of travel of both humans and mosquitoes have allowed for rapidly widespread transmission of the Zika virus. The head and brain abnormalities caused by prenatal exposure from an infected mother are detrimental, and a direct casual link between the virus and microcephaly/brain defects has been determined by the CDC. For instance, the Zika virus genome was found in the brain of an aborted, infected infant (9) that had microcephaly, and Zika virus antigens were found in the brain of one newborn with microcephaly (10). Autopsies found the presence of Zika virus in the brains of infants with severe microcephaly who died. Pregnant women infected with Zika virus have consistently given birth to infants with microcephaly and other brain abnormalities (11). The CDC further found that women who deliver infants with microcephaly were infected with Zika virus during the first and second trimester of gestation, when the brain starts to form and develop (12). There are two hypotheses directed at explaining how the Zika virus causes birth defects such as microcephaly (13). The first hypothesis posits that the placenta transfers the virus directly from mother to the fetus. The second hypothesis refers to the possible reaction of the placenta in response to Zika, which may contribute to or result in birth defects. Pregnant women are advised not to travel to areas where Zika virus is occurring.

Read more

The Secret World Inside Us

Thu, 04/14/2016 - 08:44

Recently, there’s been an influx of media attention on guts. More specifically, the microbes that live in your gut. Extensive research is being done on these little guys as they seem to be having a real impact on our health. These gut microbes may be miniscule but their function is major. And I learnt all about them at “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Before I begin walking you through the exhibit, first a brief explanation as to what microbes even are. Microbes are microscopic living organisms that can only be seen with the help of a microscope. And they are everywhere – in every fold and lining of our bodies, including our inside. They literally govern the world inside us and are responsible for much of how we function.

Our skin is the first point of contact for microbes, which is most probably why it’s the first section you get to in this exhibit. There is not one individual whose microbiome is like that of another. However, what came as a real shocker was the fact that people living together – families, roommates, and yup, pets too –share certain microbe make-up. So much so, that when one person leaves the nest for a few days, the microbiome of the house shifts until they return home again. Pretty sweet, no? Everyone sharing the same types of microbes…(It could also be slightly gross if you think about it too much, so just don’t). It was also pointed out how certain microbes, as distant as they may seem, are actually closely linked. Let’s take cheese, for example. The holes in Swiss cheese are made from a bacterium that is similar to one located on the skin, which is why (some) feet take on a cheesy-like smell. On feet, the Brevibacterium linens bacteria converts amino acids into smelly sweat, but in the world of dairy, it serves to ripen Limburger cheese. Delicious? Depends.

Now perhaps it’s my age and the fact that my ovaries now twitch on a regular basis thanks to all the babies on my FB feed, but the next section of the exhibit was hands down my favourite. “Before Birth”, the world of the baby and the microbiome of the mama. Now one would think that the two are inextricably linked since the fetus is totally reliant upon the mother; however, to my surprise, the mother’s microbiome does not mix with the fetus at all. In fact, if the microbiome of the mother interacts at all with the fetus, it could be very risky. And it’s thanks to the placenta, the gatekeeper in this whole process, why the two don’t mix. After visiting this exhibit, I really developed a whole newfound respect for the placenta since it serves a pivotal function, allowing nutrients and oxygen to enter the amniotic sac and preventing any other materials from doing so.

Now once a woman’s water breaks all rules are off. The baby is now cooked enough to not only mingle with the microbes of its’ mother but to start developing a microbiome of their own. And the birth canal is where this all happens. When the baby travels through the canal, the mother’s microbes get pressed into the skin, nose and eyes, and even swallowed by the little one before being delivered to the baby’s gut where they can then start their own gut microbiome. This process is crucial in the development of a baby’s healthy immune and digestive system. (How awesome!) But you may be wondering (as was I), about those C-section deliveries since these babies do not go through the birth canal picking up the mother’s microbes along the way. Instead, these babies pick up microbes from the doctor’s hands and the environment. They end up lining the baby’s digestive tract and in turn have an impact on their immune system, causing C-section babies to be at a higher risk of a variety of conditions, such as asthma and allergies. To test this, studies are now being done where the baby, immediately post-C-section delivery is slathered with a gauze pad that soaked up the microbes in their mother’s birth canal right before birth. Time will tell whether this can benefit the baby but most signs point to yes, which is good news since about one mother in three now gives birth by C-section in the United States.

As life goes on, microbes live, grow and multiply based on what we feed them. Meaning, the food we eat and the choices we make influence our gut bacteria. This has spawned a huge new area of research looking at individual variation when it comes to weight gain and loss, which was another section of the exhibit that I found fascinating, since like the majority of people on the planet I have a few pounds that just won’t relent.

Different people react to different foods in different ways. This is not a novel idea. I mean, just look at allergies and adverse food reactions. Some people have them, some people don’t. But what if this can be attributed to the type of microbes living in your gut? Let’s take a “healthy” food like a tomato, for example. Could you imagine if someone’s blood sugar spiked after eating tomatoes the same way it would after eating a donut? And research has shown, that this is the case! And yet in another individual, tomatoes can have zero spike effect. This whole new line of research could be a breakthrough in terms of weight control. Costly, but important. I know I’d be among the first to sign up to find out just what type of bacteria I have going on in my gut. Of course, as the exhibit suggests, one cannot know whether obese people are obese due to their microbiome or if there are external factors that caused their microbiome to be as such in the first place. It’s the chicken or the egg debate and we shall leave it to science to continue the research.

After leaving the exhibit, I realized that the microbiome is truly a hotbed of scientific research. We know so much but at the same time there are so many question marks about how we can use, manipulate, and alter our microbiome to enhance our health. And I am confident that science will, at one point or another, provide us with these answers; but until then, I’m just going to hope that my gut bacteria interact favourably with tomatoes.

You can visit “The Secret World Inside You” exhibit at the American Natural History Museum in New York where it will be on display until August 2016.

Read more