Beware the Fungus Among Us – 10 Questions to Ask

Today marks the end of Fungal Disease Awareness Week, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The CDC organized this week to raise awareness about the importance of recognizing serious fungal diseases early enough in the course of a patient’s illness to provide life-saving treatment.

Fungal Disease Awareness Week highlights the grave reality some fungal diseases go undiagnosed and cause serious infections in people in the United States and around the world, leading to illness and even death. Increased awareness about fungal diseases is one of the most important ways to improve early recognition and reduce delays in diagnosis and treatment. A key clue to when a sick person may have a fungal infection is that he or she is being treated with medications for other types of infection without expected improvement.

Healthcare providers and their patients are encouraged to Think Fungus when symptoms of infection do not get better with treatment.  Fungal diseases range from relatively minor superficial and mucosal infections to severe, life-threatening systemic infections. Delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to poor patient outcomes and high medical costs. The overall burden of fungal diseases in the United States is challenging to quantify because they are likely substantially underdiagnosed.



It is estimated that fungal diseases cost more than $7.2 billion in 2017, including $4.5 billion from 75,055 hospitalizations and $2.6 billion from 8,993,230 outpatient visits. Hospitalizations for Candida infections (n=26,735, total cost $1.4 billion) and Aspergillus infections (n=14,820, total cost $1.2 billion) accounted for the highest total hospitalization costs of any disease. Over half of outpatient visits were for dermatophyte infections (4,981,444 visits, total cost $802 million), and 3,639,037 visits occurred for non-invasive candidiasis (total cost $1.6 billion).[1]

Fungal diseases are often misdiagnosed as their symptoms sometimes resemble other conditions. For example, Valley fever — an inhaled fungal infection that incites cough, fever and a distinctive rash on the upper body or legs — is often misdiagnosed as bacterial pneumonia. While an estimated 150,000 cases of Valley fever occur every year, only 10,000 cases are diagnosed.

About 46,000 healthcare-associated invasive fungal infections occur in the U.S. annually. Growing drug resistance is also making certain fungal strains more difficult to treat.


The fungus is among us.

Fungi are everywhere. There are millions of distinct species of fungi on Earth, but only about 300 of those are known to make people sick. Fungal infections are often caused by microscopic fungi that are common in the environment. Fungi live outdoors in soil and on plants and trees as well as on many indoor surfaces and on human skin.

Mild fungal skin infections can look like a rash and are very common. For example, ringworm is a skin infection that’s caused by a fungus, not a worm! Fungal infections in the lungs can be more serious and often cause symptoms that are similar to other illnesses, such as the flu or tuberculosis.

Fungal meningitis and bloodstream infections are less common than skin and lung infections but can be life-threatening. Because the symptoms of fungal infections can be similar to other illnesses, proper diagnosis and treatment are often delayed. The more you know about fungal infections and your chances of getting one, the better prepared you can be to protect your health.


10 questions you can use to understand fungal infections, learn how you can get sick, and know what you need to do to stay healthy.


Where do you live and travel? Fungi that can cause serious infections are more common in some parts of the United States and world. For example, the fungus that causes Valley fever (also called coccidioidomycosis) is found mainly in the southwestern United States. Histoplasmosis and blastomycosis occur most often in the eastern United States. These infections usually cause a lung infection that is often mistaken for flu or a bacterial infection.

What types of activities are you doing? Harmful fungi can be found in air, dust, and soil. Histoplasma grows especially well in soil that contains bird or bat droppings. Activities like digging, gardening, cleaning chicken coops, and visiting caves can result in you breathing in fungi that may cause infection.

Do you have a dog or cat? People can get ringworm from their pets. Dogs and cats with ringworm sometimes have circular, hairless patches on their skin or other types of rashes. Adult animals do not always show signs of ringworm infection.

Have you recently taken antibiotics? Antibiotics can make women more likely to get vulvovaginal candidiasis, also known as a vaginal yeast infection. Women who are pregnant and have weakened immune systems also are more likely to get this condition. Men also can get genital candidiasis.

Are you taking any medications that affect your immune system? Medications used to treat conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus may weaken your immune system and increase the chance of getting a fungal infection.

Are you living with HIV/AIDS? People living with HIV/AIDS may be more likely to get fungal infections. Two well-known fungal infections associated with HIV/AIDS in the United States are oral candidiasis (thrush) and Pneumocystis pneumonia. Worldwide, cryptococcal meningitis is a major cause of illness in people living with HIV/AIDS.

Will you be hospitalized? In the United States, one of the most common bloodstream infections in hospitalized patients is caused by a fungus called Candida. Candida normally lives in the gastrointestinal tract and on skin without causing any problems, but it can enter the bloodstream during a hospital stay and cause infection.

Have you recently had a transplant? People who have recently had an organ transplant or a stem cell transplant have a greater chance of developing a fungal infection while their immune systems are weakened. Doctors prescribe antifungal medication for some transplant patients to prevent fungal infections from developing.

Are you receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatments? Cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, weakens your immune system and may increase the chance you will get a fungal infection.

Do you have symptoms of pneumonia that are not getting better with antibiotics? Fungal infections, especially lung infections like Valley fever, histoplasmosis, and aspergillosis, can have similar symptoms as bacterial infections. However, antibiotics don’t work for fungal infections. Early testing for fungal infections reduces unnecessary antibiotic use and allows people to start treatment with antifungal medication, if necessary.



Anyone can get a fungal infection, and fungal diseases impose a considerable economic burden on the healthcare system. Since they are often under-diagnosed, it is important to learn more about the signs, symptoms, and treatment of fungal infections and get prevention tips by visiting CDC’s fungal diseases website and by talking with your healthcare provider.

To connect quickly with the right healthcare provider in your area, go to – the FUTURE OF CONNECTED HEALTHCARE.  There, you will find one comprehensive platform that connects doctors, families and medical data to Improve HealthCare.


Adapted from the CDC pages on fungal infections.


[1] Estimation of direct healthcare costs of fungal diseases in the United States

Kaitlin Benedict  Brendan R Jackson  Tom Chiller  Karlyn D Beer

Clinical Infectious Diseases, ciy776,

Published: 10 September 2018

“Our Father Taught Us” / A Journey Toward Teamwork – Preview

It all began with a country doctor and his sons—two boys raised to be doctors “the way farm boys are taught to be farmers.”

This film imagines Dr. William J. Mayo recalling an actual event from his childhood, when he and his brother, Charlie, accompanied their father on a journey to perform a difficult operation. On that memorable day, Will and Charlie learned the values of compassion, teamwork and dedication to the needs of the patient – values that became the foundation of Mayo Clinic.

Mayo Clinic Heritage Films produces original documentaries and dramatizations about key aspects of Mayo’s history. With the generous support of our benefactors, these award-winning films include cinematography of the highest quality; rare photos, movies and artifacts; and interviews with people who took part in historic events.

Enjoy these preview clips and visit to purchase the full-length DVD. Proceeds from the sale of each film support Mayo’s not-for-profit mission of excellence in patient care, research and education.


48,XXXY syndrome – Genetics Home Reference


48,XXXY syndrome is a chromosomal condition in boys and men that causes intellectual disability, developmental delays, physical differences, and an inability to father biological children (infertility). Its signs and symptoms vary among affected individuals.

Most boys and men with 48,XXXY syndrome have mild intellectual disability with learning difficulties. Speech and language development is particularly affected. Most affected boys and men can understand what other people say more easily than they themselves can speak. The problems with speech and communication can contribute to behavioral issues, including irritability and outbursts or temper tantrums. Boys and men with 48,XXXY syndrome tend to have anxiety, a short attention span, and impaired social skills.

48,XXXY syndrome is also associated with weak muscle tone (hypotonia) and problems with coordination that delay the development of motor skills, such as sitting, standing, and walking. Affected boys and men tend to be taller than their peers, with an average adult height of over 6 feet.

Other physical differences associated with 48,XXXY syndrome include abnormal fusion of certain bones in the forearm (radioulnar synostosis), an unusually large range of joint movement (), elbow abnormalities, curved pinky fingers (fifth finger ), and flat feet (). Affected individuals may have distinctive facial features, including widely spaced eyes (), outside corners of the eyes that point upward (), and skin folds covering the inner corner of the eyes (epicanthal folds). However, some boys and men with 48,XXXY syndrome do not have these differences in their facial features.

48,XXXY syndrome disrupts male sexual development. The penis is shorter than usual, and the testes may be undescended, which means they are abnormally located inside the pelvis or abdomen. The testes are small and do not produce enough testosterone, which is the hormone that directs male sexual development. The shortage of testosterone often leads to incomplete puberty. Starting in adolescence, affected boys and men may have sparse body hair, and some experience breast enlargement (gynecomastia). Their testes typically do not produce sperm, so most men with this condition are infertile.

Source link

Bronchitis – The Basics

What exactly is bronchitis? And it is contagious? Learn more:

Subscribe to WebMD here:

Follow WebMD here:

Source by [author_name]

WebMD,health,bronchitis,the basics,cough,what is bronchitis,how to treat bronchitis,symptoms of bronchitis,bronchitis symptoms,bronchitis treatments,wheeze,is bronchitis contagious,breathing problem,cold,flu,lungs

Atrial Fibrillation Treatment


Atrial fibrillation is treated with lifestyle changes, medicines, procedures, and surgery to help prevent blood clots, slow your heart beat, or restore your heart’s normal rhythm.

Your doctor may also treat you for an underlying disorder that is causing or raising the risk of atrial fibrillation, such as sleep apnea or an overactive thyroid gland.

Lifestyle changes

Your doctor may recommend adopting heart-healthy lifestyle changes, such as the following:

  • Heart-healthy eating patterns such as the DASH eating plan, which reduces salt intake to help lower blood pressure
  • Being physically active
  • Getting help if you are trying to stop using street drugs
  • Limiting or avoiding alcohol or other stimulants that may increase your heart rate
  • Managing stress
  • Quitting smoking. Visit Smoking and Your Heart and the NHLBI’s Your Guide to a Healthy Heart. Although these resources focus on heart health, they include basic information about how to quit smoking. For free help and support to quit smoking, you can call the National Cancer Institute’s Smoking Quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848).

Your doctor may consider treating your atrial fibrillation with medicines to slow your heart rate or to make your heart’s rhythm more even:

  • Beta blockers, such as metoprolol, carvedilol, and atenolol, to help slow the rate at which the heart’s lower chambers pump blood throughout the body. Rate control is important because it allows the ventricles enough time to fill with blood completely. With this approach, the abnormal heart rhythm continues, but you may feel better and have fewer symptoms. Beta blockers are usually taken by mouth, but they may be delivered through a tube in an emergency situation. If the dose is too high, it can cause the heart to beat too slowly. These medicines can also make COPD and arrhythmia worse.
  • Blood thinners to prevent blood clots and lower the risk of stroke. These medicines include warfarin, dabigatran, heparin, and clopidogrel. You may not need to take blood thinners if you are not at risk of a stroke. Blood-thinning medicines carry a risk of bleeding. Other side effects include indigestion and heart attack.
  • Calcium channel blockers to control the rate at which the heart’s lower chambers pump blood throughout the body. They include diltiazem and verapamil.
  • Digitalis, or digoxin, to control the rate blood is pumped throughout the body. It should be used with caution, as its use can lead to other arrhythmias.
  • Other heart rhythm medicines to slow a heart that is beating too fast or change an abnormal heart rhythm to a normal, steady rhythm. Rhythm control is an approach recommended for people who continue to have symptoms or otherwise are not getting better with rate control medicines. Rhythm control also may be used for people who have only recently started having atrial fibrillation or for highly physically active people and athletes. These medicines may be used alone or in combination with electrical cardioversion. Or your doctor may prescribe some of these medicines for you to take on an as-needed basis when you feel symptoms of atrial fibrillation. Some heart rhythm medicines can make arrhythmia worse. Other side effects include effects on the liver, lung, and other organs, low blood pressure, and indigestion.

Your doctor may recommend treatments for an underlying cause or to reduce atrial fibrillation risk factors. For example, he or she may prescribe medicines to treat an overactive thyroid, lower high blood pressure, or manage high blood cholesterol.

Procedures or surgery

Your doctor may recommend a procedure or surgery, especially if lifestyle changes and medicine alone did not improve your symptoms. Typically, your doctor will consider a surgical procedure to treat your atrial fibrillation only if you will be having surgery to treat some other heart condition.

  • Catheter ablation to destroy the tissue that is causing the arrhythmia. Ablation is not always successful and in rare cases may lead to serious complications, such as stroke. The risk that atrial fibrillation will reoccur is highest in the first few weeks after the procedure. If this happens, your doctor may repeat the procedure. In some cases, your doctor will place a pacemaker at the time of the procedure to make sure your heart beats correctly once the tissue causing problems is destroyed.
  • Electrical cardioversion to restore your heart rhythm using low-energy shocks to your heart. This may be done in an emergency or if medicines have not worked.
  • Pacemaker to reduce atrial fibrillation when it is triggered by a slow heartbeat. Typically, a pacemaker is used to treat atrial fibrillation only when it is diagnosed along with another arrhythmia. For example, if you are diagnosed with a slow heart rate or sick sinus syndrome, a pacemaker implanted for that condition can also prevent atrial fibrillation. If you have surgery for a pacemaker, you will need to take blood-thinning medicines.
  • Plugging, closing, or cutting off the left atrial appendage to prevent clots from forming in the area and causing a stroke. Your doctor may do this at the same time as surgical ablation. It can be difficult to close off the appendage entirely, and leaking can contribute to ongoing clotting risk.
  • Surgical ablation to destroy heart tissue generating faulty electrical signals. The surgeon usually does surgical ablation at the same time as surgery to repair heart valves, but in some cases, surgical ablation can be done on its own.
Look for
  • Living With will explain what your doctor may recommend, including lifelong lifestyle changes and medical care to prevent your condition from recurring, getting worse, or causing complications.
  • Research for Your Health will explain how we are using current research and advancing research to treat people with atrial fibrillation.
  • Participate in NHLBI Clinical Trials will discuss our open and enrolling clinical studies that are investigating treatments for atrial fibrillation.
Syndicated Content Details:
Source URL:
Source Agency: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Captured Date: 2018-09-27 13:47:00.0

The Good, The Bad, The Hela | by Alexandra de Carpio

Today marks the death of the woman in whom the most famous (and infamous) immortal cell line was discovered.  Henrietta Lacks, a hard-working woman and loving mother, passed away from the virulent Cervical cancer that was taking over her body.  In honor of the woman, whose family just recently won the right to determine what happens with HeLa cells, we are sharing an article from a research student who insightfully describes all that has occurred with this incredible cell line – The Good, The Bad and the HeLa.

Ask most people and they’ll say that being first is best: you win medals at races, get best dibs on cookies at a reception, avoid getting scooped on research, and ride shotgun in a car. Sometimes, however, being first has both positive and negative consequences, as anyone familiar with the history of HeLa cells can tell you.

HeLa cells have the distinction of being the first immortal cell line cultured by scientists. Unlike a normal population of human cells, which divide about 40 to 50 times before dying away, HeLa cells have the remarkable ability to divide indefinitely. Coming in first secured their status as one of the most popular cell lines used by scientists for research, making them the cornerstone of some of the most significant biological advances. UC Berkeley researchers are also no stranger to HeLa: an estimated 200 labs on campus have used HeLa cells. Today, Berkeley scientists have a wider array of cell lines to choose from, but HeLa’s familiarity and hardy growth continues to make it a popular choice.

In the early 1950’s, however, scientists had yet to meet HeLa. In fact, the original HeLa cells were still attached to a living, breathing human being; a woman who put her family first in every situation, even when battling an unyielding cancer. This cancer would overcome her, but her cancerous cells would continue to grow in laboratories across the world. As the first immortal human cell line, HeLa cells, along with their involuntary donor’s family, had to deal with the growing pains of a society who could develop the technology for cell and tissue culture faster than the ethical rules needed to regulate it.

Both the good and the bad, this is the story of a woman, her legendary cells, and how they have touched the lives of research scientists at UC Berkeley.

A prominent mother figure: paving the way for breakthrough research

For most scientists, Henrietta Lacks represents the mother of all HeLa cells. As the first and, for many years, only cell line able to divide indefinitely out of the body, their popularity among research scientists flourished, and HeLa cells quickly became workhorses in the laboratory. Their first formidable task? To aid in the development of the polio vaccine in 1953. Jonas Salk, a virologist at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, had created a vaccine from inactivated viruses. It seemed promising, but he needed cells—lots of them—to test his vaccine before human trials. HeLa cells were the perfect tool. Not only did they grow vigorously, making it easy to amass the enormous quantity of cells required for the study, but they also become easily infected by the poliomyelitis virus. Within less than a year, the vaccine was ready for human patients.

From there, the list of HeLa’s accomplishments only continued to grow. Known as the mother of virology, cell and tissue culture, and biotechnology, HeLa cells were used to jumpstart research on how viruses act and reprogram cells, as well as to develop standard lab practices for freezing and culturing cells and tissues. Scientists used them to develop cell cloning, in vitro fertilization, and isolation of stem cells, as well as to research AIDS, cancer, and the effects of radiation and toxic substances. HeLa cells have been infected with an array of diseases, from tuberculosis to salmonella, and have helped scientists understand that a normal human cell has 46 chromosomes, thus making genetic disorders easier to diagnose. It is easy to see why many have also named HeLa the mother of modern medicine. HeLa cells were a welcome development for researchers around the world.

For Lawrence, Elsie, Sonny, Deborah, and Zakariyya Lacks, Henrietta was simply known as mom. Described as a strong but caring woman, Henrietta kept her growing family together while her husband, Day, worked at a steel mill. She was no stranger to hard work after growing up with her grandfather on a tobacco farm in Virginia. For the youngest children in the family, however, much of what they know of their mother would come second hand. Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer a mere four and a half months after giving birth to her fifth child, Zakariyya, and would perish from it less than a year later.

Henrietta’s battle with cancer began when, worried about a knot that she felt in her abdomen, she made the 20-mile trip to Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the time, Johns Hopkins was the only option in the area for African Americans seeking medical treatment. A biopsy of her cervix revealed that she had cervical carcinoma, a type of cancer that grows from the epithelial cells that line and protect the cervix. Extensive treatment ensued, which began by inserting tubes of radium into her cervix to reduce the tumor, followed by daily X-ray therapy. Despite the debilitating treatments, Henrietta’s commitment to her family never wavered, and she was able to keep her condition secret from most family members in order to spare them the worry. In turn, she endured much of it alone while Day was at work. Her cancer proved to be too resilient, however, and began to weaken both body and spirit. Tumors overcame nearly all the organs in her abdomen, and relief from the excruciating pain was the only service available at Johns Hopkins. Henrietta passed away on October 4th, 1951.

Her death left a family without its mother.

The birth of HeLa: an exceptional cell line

HeLa as we know it today was born in the lab of George Gey, the director of the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s. Gey’s agenda? Cure cancer. His tactic? Develop an immortal human cell line that could be used for research. Fortunately, his position at Johns Hopkins meant he had plenty of tissue samples from which he could try growing human cells in the lab. Unfortunately, most of these cell samples would die within a few generations. That is, until one of them did not: HeLa. Gey obtained HeLa from the surgeon treating Henrietta’s carcinoma, who had been taking cancerous tissue samples from patients for Gey’s research. As with his other samples, Gey named the cell line using the first two letters of the patient’s first and last name. Henrietta Lacks became HeLa.

True to his ultimate goal of curing cancer, Gey was generous with his newly discovered gem, and gave away samples to a few close colleagues working to eradicate cancer. From its beginning in Baltimore, Maryland, HeLa soon traveled the world as scientists far and wide learned of this remarkable immortal cell line.

So, what makes HeLa special? As cancer cells, HeLa cells are unlike normal human cells, and there is no better proof of this than to take a look at its chromosomes, or karyotype. Normal human cells have 46 chromosomes, while HeLa has 76 to 80 heavily mutated chromosomes. The origin of this deviation from normalcy stems from the human papilloma virus (HPV), the cause of nearly all cervical cancers. HPV inserts its DNA into a host cell, causing it to begin producing a protein that binds to and inactivates the native p53 protein. p53 is known as the guardian of the genome due to its role in preventing mutations and suppressing tumors. Non-functional p53 protein can therefore have disastrous consequences.

Relative to other cancer cells, however, HeLa cells still grow unusually fast. Gey was amazed to see that within 24 hours of culturing his first HeLa sample, the number of cells had doubled. The source of this abnormal vigor lies in HeLa’s telomerase enzyme. During normal cell division, the string of repetitive DNA at the tips of all chromosomes, known as telomeres, are shortened. This leads to cell aging and ultimately to apoptosis, or cell death. Normal cells have a maximum number of divisions before these telomeres are depleted. HeLa cells, meanwhile, have an overactive telomerase enzyme that rebuilds telomerases after cell division, thus circumventing the aging process and skirting death. This internal fountain of youth is what has allowed HeLa cells to divide indefinitely, making them now older than Henrietta was when she died.

The birth of HeLa: at the expense of proper consent

For decades, Henrietta’s side of the story has been largely ignored, but thanks to Rebecca Skloot’s novel, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she finally has a voice. When Henrietta stepped into the public ward of Johns Hopkins on January 29th, 1951, she could have had no knowledge of what was to ensue. She hoped that her radium treatments would cure her of cervical carcinoma. She hoped that she would still be capable of having children. She hoped to see her family thrive and grow. Unfortunately, she was let down on many counts; Henrietta’s cancer proved too powerful for the doctors at Johns Hopkins to treat, despite their best efforts.

No effort, however, was made to treat Henrietta herself as a woman capable of making her own medical decisions. Without question, Henrietta would have opted out of treatment had she been informed that it would leave her infertile, a fact that she only discovered once it was too late. She also never discovered that her surgeon had taken tissue samples for Gey’s research. Would she have consented? Would she have appreciated Gey sending her cells to his colleagues? What about having her cells commercialized and sold for profit, as they are commonly done today? Would she mind that strangers would profit from her cells, selling them to researchers making important medical advances, while her own family is unable to pay for health care?

It’s too late for Henrietta to answer these questions, but her story has forced scientists and doctors to make sure that such questions are addressed by patients and research participants. Since 1991, scientists and doctors have been governed by the Common Rule, which requires them to inform people when they are participating in research, and that their participation be completely voluntary. Patients must sign consent forms which clearly state what the research is, how long it will last, what the potential risks are, if there is any compensation, and more. Unfortunately, the Common Rule did not come soon enough to protect Henrietta’s family. After HeLa cells exploded on the scene and became associated with many significant scientific advances, people became curious about the woman behind the cells. Along with consent, anonymity and privacy were not issues that had been properly addressed in the medical arena, and Henrietta’s identity was soon revealed. Having her name so closely related to HeLa probably did not help.

This is how, 22 years after her death, Henrietta’s children learned that pieces of their mother were still alive and thriving. Scientists came knocking, asking for blood samples to supply the genetic information needed to better understand HeLa. Again, no consent was obtained, and with a limited background in biology, the family misunderstood the purpose of these samples; they thought they were being tested for cancer. Marginalized by the media and the medical community, it would take decades for them to uncover the true story of what happened to their mother and to gain an understanding of what HeLa means to the world today.

Life in the lab as a hearty membrane source

When Pengcheng Zhang steps into his lab in Li Ka Shing Center to start another day, he is often met by HeLa. Zhang is a fifth year molecular and cell biology PhD student working in the lab of Professor Randy Schekman. The Schekman lab focuses on understanding how proteins produced in a cell are shuttled out via the secretory pathway, an intricate assembly of membranes and proteins. Schekman’s goal is to decipher this pathway by pinpointing the proteins and biomolecules that make it run and determining just how they do it. So far, he has been successful in yeast.

“[Schekman] started out in yeast because it’s much less complex than tissues and organs,” explains Zhang. “After about 20 years of work they came up with this protein complex called COPII, which is required for the first step into this secretory pathway.”

COPII (coatomer protein complex II) is a set of five proteins that work together to create vesicles, or sacs, that bud from protein-producing subunits in the cell, known as the endoplasmic reticulum. These vesicles are then transported to other membranes in the cell for unloading, including export through the outer membrane. The Schekman lab was able to recreate the process in test tubes with only the cargo, purified yeast membranes, and COPII, thus identifying the key components required for the secretory pathway. “This is a very central concept in biochemistry: that we can reconstitute biological processes in the test tube,” says Zhang. “We look at biological processes as a series of chemical reactions.”

Although cells are composed of a vast amount of material, if the proper proteins or biomolecules required for a given cellular reaction are identified and isolated, that same reaction can be carried out in a cell-free system. This is how the Schekman lab was able to identify and isolate the COPII complex of yeast. More recently, however, they have set their sights on understanding the secretory pathway in higher order organisms such as mammals. “We know for a fact that in mammals COPII does the same thing,” explains Zhang. “But the thing is, from yeast to humans the number of proteins that go through the secretory pathway expands.”

For some of these larger, more complex proteins, the Schekman lab has found that COPII alone is insufficient in their test tube “cell”. Understanding the modifications, such as additional proteins, that are required for mammalian cells is now the goal. Zhang, for instance, is trying to understand the necessary components for shuttling transforming growth factor alpha (TGF-α), a protein that is involved in the development of epithelial tissue such as skin or the lining of the cervix. This is where HeLa comes in. “HeLa cells are the major membrane source for my biochemical reactions,” says Zhang. “They are desirable in our case because it’s a human cell line and it grows relatively fast.”

Faster growth means more membranes for Zhang’s experiments. Zhang also uses another mammalian cell line derived from rat liver cells to harvest its cytosol, which is the cellular fluid containing all the proteins and biomolecules of the cell. Zhang transfects, or introduces, additional TGF-α cargo into these liver cells in order to yield better signals. By combining purified COPII, HeLa’s cell membranes, where the secretory mechanism occurs, and the harvested cytosol containing the TGF-α cargo and Zhang’s mystery proteins, Zhang has all that he needs to recreate the secretory pathway in vitro. The trick, however, is figuring out which protein or proteins in the cytosol are doing the work.

“We fractionate the cytosol, separate the protein content, and analyze where the activity goes,” explains Zhang. When one of the fractions successfully reproduces the secretory pathway, Zhang knows that it contains his desired protein. Unfortunately, it’s usually not the only protein present. “[The fractions are] not pure enough that we can assign the function to a particular protein or couple of proteins with confidence. That’s why we need many fractionation steps to get down to a pure enough fraction to have confidence to say that we think these things are responsible for this secretory function.”

So far, the protein of interest remains a mystery. Once identified, however, the Schekman lab can determine if changes or mutations in the protein are linked to any human diseases, with the ultimate goal being treatment of such a disease.

Zhang is not the only graduate student at Berkeley taking advantage of HeLa’s utility in the lab. Ann Fischer, who has been running the Tissue Culture Facility in Barker Hall since 1989, supplies HeLa cells for many of the labs who use them today. She is no stranger to HeLa: Fischer has been working in tissue culture facilities, first at UCSF, then at UCLA, and finally here at UC Berkeley, since 1971.

Fischer says the use of HeLa cells by UC Berkeley researchers has gone through various phases during her time here. Initially, she would grow hundreds of liters of HeLa cells for researchers in the biochemistry department to extract large quantities of a given protein of interest.

“That was the heyday of just biochemistry: using cells to get proteins out,” explains Fischer. “People [later] started using cells for overexpression.” Overexpression involves inserting a gene of interest into the DNA of HeLa cells and stimulating the cells to express it, thus enabling researchers to obtain larger quantities of protein with fewer cells. Today, overexpression is still a popular application of HeLa cells, but the utility of HeLa has expanded. Zhang, for instance, uses HeLa to harvest its membranes, while others take advantage of HeLa’s large size for imaging. In the end, HeLa’s vigor is what makes it so popular.

“It’s because they grow so well,” explains Fischer. “That’s the reason people use HeLa cells.”

Life in the lab: as a hearty contaminant

When Professor Gertrude Buehring steps into her lab in Koshland Hall, she is never met by HeLa cells. In fact, she makes a point of it. “We never grow them,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to take that risk, actually.”

Buehring, a professor of virology in the School of Public Health, has a reason to be wary of HeLa. Both her PhD and postdoc careers were spent working at UC Berkeley’s Cell Culture Laboratory housed in the Naval Biosciences Laboratory in Oakland, a cell repository funded by the federal government that characterized and maintained cell lines for research scientists. She happened to be working there at a time when Dr. Walter Nelson-Rees, the co-director, was working hard to expose HeLa’s misdeeds. The vigorous cell’s crime? The contamination of other, less hardy cell lines.

Nelson-Rees was not the first to suspect contamination by HeLa cells. In the 1960s, Dr. Stanley Gartler, a research geneticist, released the initial “HeLa bomb”. Gartler had discovered that the 18 different cell lines he had collected for his research all turned out to be genetically identical, with genes only present in people of African descent. HeLa was a suspect, but many scientists refused to accept the implications of his discovery, and chose instead to ignore it. Ten years later, Nelson-Rees picked up where Gartler left off, and discovered several HeLa specific chromosomal markers that could be used to test the identity of cell lines.

“Since this repository had so many cell lines, [Nelson-Rees] was going through all of them and examining them for these markers,” recalls Buehring. “While he was there he came up with 40, which was more than one expected.”

In that instant, any tissue-specific research that used the cell lines identified as HeLa contaminants was suddenly invalid. How can research on breast cancer cells be taken seriously when the cells used were actually cervical cancer cells all along? It has been estimated that over 500 research papers and more than 20 million dollars of funding have been wasted. The problem stems from the adolescent days of cell culture.

“After Dr. Gey established the HeLa line, everybody was so excited and thought they could establish a human cell line, too,” Buehring explains. Unfortunately, most of these labs did not have the knowledge or equipment to properly culture cells. What they did have was plenty of HeLa cells around, and due to HeLa’s hardiness, a single cell could outgrow and overtake all normal human cells in a culture. “Suddenly everybody was able to establish a human cell line,” jokes Buehring. It turned out that many of them were just HeLa.

Even years after being exposed for what they really were, HeLa contaminants continued to be sold by the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), one of the largest international cell line repositories, and scientists continued to request the cells they had become so familiar with. In fact, many scientists were hostile towards Nelson-Rees, and unable to accept the implications of his work. Over time, however, the ATCC refused to sell HeLa contaminants. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are no longer used in labs today. Since her days working at the Naval Science Laboratory, Buehring kept HeLa in the back of her mind, and was curious about the extent to which HeLa contaminants were still used, as well as how aware researchers were about HeLa’s potency.

“I couldn’t find any research papers where people actually looked at that,” she says. So, in 2004 she decided to look into it herself. With the help of an undergraduate student, Professor Buehring conducted a survey of researchers known to culture cells and asked what kinds of cell lines they worked with, whether it was for tissue-specific work or not, and if they ever tested the identities of their cell lines. The results surprised her.

“There were so many people who used HeLa cells in their laboratory, and only about 50% did any kind of check to see if there was contamination,” she says. Not only that, but about 60% of respondents had acquired at least one cell line from another laboratory rather than from a repository like the ATCC.

“Often times people will think they’re getting a good cell line from a colleague down the hall, but they don’t know it’s already been contaminated,” she explains. “If it isn’t checked, you never know that.” Buehring herself rarely gets cells from other labs, but if she does, she makes sure to check their identity before trusting them.

The survey also revealed that about 10% of respondents still used HeLa contaminants, 30% of which used them for tissue-specific purposes. The original “HeLa bomb” of the 1960s and 70s had lingering effects, it appeared.

The truth is, however, that many researchers today don’t see HeLa as a contamination threat anymore. “Back when cell cultures started, they were using glass. It was so easy to contaminate,” says Fischer. The use of disposables today helps eliminate some of the threat. “Nowadays, I don’t worry about that at all.”

Like Buehring, Fischer also insists on getting cells from reputable sources like the ATCC; otherwise, she suggests verifying their identity. Going back to frozen stocks of cells every week or two is another method of avoiding contamination. Zhang says that he, too, is not concerned. “If it gets contaminated with a different cell line it’s very recognizable because looking under the microscope every cell line has a very distinct shape,” he explains. HeLa cells, for instance, are often very large and triangular.

Not only have cell culturing methods improved, but HeLa’s days as the easiest and fastest growing cell line are over. New cell lines have emerged that work just as well, if not better, for certain applications. Insect cells, for instance, can also be used to overexpress proteins, but can be grown in larger quantities. This makes them ideal little protein factories for when researchers need large quantities of a given protein for study. “People don’t use HeLa cells as much because they’re harder to grow than insect cells,” says Fischer. “Believe it or not! Harder to grow!”

Bacteria cells are actually the easiest cell type to grow but may not be capable of making some of the more complicated human proteins that often require more intricate modifications before they become fully functional. Yeast cells, which have a more advanced protein assembly system, are the next line of attack, followed by insect cells. Only if these three cell types are unable to produce the human protein of interest do researchers consider human cells such as HeLa.

There are other reasons that HeLa cells are finding themselves at the bottom of the list: as a cancer cell, its DNA is a major liability. “[HeLa cells] have the strangest karyotype,” says Fischer. “They have 3 copies of this, and 2 copies of this, and 5 copies of that. They’re not normal.”

Many researchers today choose to work with cells that more closely resemble normal human cells, thus taking their in vitro systems one step closer to mimicking how a real human functions. IMR-90 cells are one such example. Cultivated from the lungs of a human fetus in the Netherlands, IMR-90s have a normal karyotype with 46 chromosomes. Of course, there are drawbacks to working with “mortal” cells.

“They only go up 60 populations and then they [die],” says Fischer. “We have to thaw those every three weeks.” Not only that, but as the cell line becomes older and older, they show signs of aging and may not be ideal for research anymore. Luckily, Zhang doesn’t have to worry about trying to work with more normal, but finicky, cell lines.

“Since we’re looking at such a fundamental process in the cell, we think that although HeLa cells are very different from normal human cells, the basic processes that keep the cell alive should essentially be unaltered,” reasons Zhang.

Buehring agrees that there is an important distinction between using HeLa to obtain basic cellular material versus using HeLa as a whole cell and expecting all of its cellular processes to be the same. As a “bag to hold the biomolecules of study,” however, they work just fine.   For other purposes, HeLa may not be top dog anymore.

A wealth of information: making research faster and easier

Like a celebrity, the more scientists learn and work with HeLa, the more popular it becomes. It began in the early days of cell culture, when HeLa’s vigor and human origin made it unique. Today, scientists take comfort in HeLa because of its familiarity.

It’s well-characterized because so many labs have been working on it,” explains Zhang. “There are many tools that work with HeLa cells that don’t necessarily work well with obscure cell lines.”

This is because many of these tools or techniques were originally developed using HeLa cells and are thus optimized for them. One example, gene knockdowns, can be used to stop HeLa from expressing a specific protein, thus helping Zhang determine if and how it affects the secretory pathway. HeLa also has good transfection efficiency, ensuring that when Zhang transfects his HeLa cells with a protein, a higher percentage of the population will have his protein of interest.

Not only can HeLa do a lot, we also know a lot about it. As a human cell line, the human genome database becomes an important source of genetic information. Zhang, for instance, uses the database to design his knockdowns and target a specific gene of interest. Though not crucial, HeLa’s specific genome would make things even easier. Luckily, this is now a possibility. Since August of 2013, researchers can submit proposals to gain access to the HeLa genome on the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) database.

“You would know which genes are expressed instead of empirically testing it, which can take a week,” says Zhang. Access to the NIH database would let him see what genes are expressed and to what degree, therefore making it easier to design effective knockdowns.

Simply put, HeLa cells are just plain simple.


A wealth of information: crossing the boundaries of privacy

As HeLa’s popularity in the lab grew and the list of medical discoveries reached the ears of non-scientists, public interest sprouted. Articles began to surface that speculated on the identity of this mystery woman. Credit was given to Helen Lane or Helen Larson, until eventually Henrietta’s true identity was revealed.

Researchers, members of the media, and con artists soon hounded the family, all hungry to use them for their genetic information, family history, or as pawns for a fraudulent money-making lawsuit against Johns Hopkins, respectively. No one, however, provided the family with any information in return, and they were often left in the dark about their mother’s final months, the origin of HeLa, and the implications of HeLa in research. The infamous cells became a burden.

This kind of disclosure about a human cell line would be unthinkable today, and rightly so. “Nowadays, if you take their cells, you wouldn’t call them by that patient’s name because of confidentiality,” says Fischer. “What if you found a genetic abnormality that could be traced back to the family?”

Which is, in fact, a very real question posed by members of the Lacks family. In March of 2013, HeLa’s complete genome was published without the family’s knowledge. Researchers like Zhang sit on both sides of the fence on the issue. “It would be helpful to get some genomic information that would be specific to HeLa cells,” he begins, “but there’s this privacy issue, an ethical issue.”

The genome was removed after the family voiced its concerns. A few short months later, however, a compromise was reached, known as the HeLa Genome Data Use Agreement. Researchers can obtain controlled access to the genome after submitting a proposal, and any data obtained from the genome must be openly shared on the NIH database. Access to the genome will be tightly regulated by a committee of six, two of whom are members of the Lacks family.

It may not have been a simple journey, but the family is in the dark no more.

Over the years the family has come to learn about the use and importance of HeLa cells, and the research and medical communities have, in turn, learned to respect them. Credit, in large part, must be given to Rebecca Skloot, whose book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was the first to focus on the story of Henrietta and her family rather than HeLa. Skloot took a different, more constructive, approach than the scientists and members of the media who came before her. She chose to work with the family rather than use them and helped them understand all parts of their mother: from life to death to HeLa. In turn, scientists can now learn about the history of the cells they have become so familiar with in the lab and understand their significance outside of the lab.

“The wealth of information that we’ve learned from her cells is just so overwhelming,” says Zhang. Not only has this information resulted in valuable medical advances, research papers, and PhD theses, but also in crucial laws and policies governing the use of cells and tissues, and a greater awareness of cell line contamination. It may be that with good comes bad, but the key is converting the mistakes of the past into something constructive for the future. Zhang would argue that acknowledging those who deserve the credit is also important: “I think we should all be grateful to her.”


This article appears in the print edition of the Berkeley Science Review. All authors and editors are graduate students in the Bay Area.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder – Genetics Home Reference


Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by features called obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive thoughts, mental images, or urges to perform specific actions. While the particular obsessions vary widely, they often include fear of illness or contamination; a desire for symmetry or getting things “just right;” or intrusive thoughts involving religion, sex, or aggression. Compulsions consist of the repetitive performance of certain actions, such as checking or verifying, washing, counting, arranging, acting out specific routines, or seeking assurance. These behaviors are performed to relieve anxiety, rather than to seek pleasure as in other compulsive behaviors like gambling, eating, or sex.

While almost everyone experiences obsessive feelings and compulsive behaviors occasionally or in particular contexts, in OCD they take up more than an hour a day and cause problems with work, school, or social life. People with OCD generally experience anxiety and other distress around their need to accommodate their obsessions or compulsions.

About half the time, OCD becomes evident in childhood or adolescence, and most other cases appear in early adulthood. It is unusual for OCD to start after age 40. It tends to appear earlier in males, but by adulthood it is slightly more common in females. Affected individuals can experience periods when their symptoms increase or decrease in severity, but the condition usually does not go away completely.

Some people with OCD have additional mental health disorders such as generalized anxiety, depression, phobias, panic disorders, or schizophrenia. OCD can also occur in people with other neurological conditions such as Tourette syndrome and similar disorders, traumatic brain injury, stroke, or dementia.

Source link

The Basics: How Birth Control Pills Work

Birth control pills do more than prevent pregnancy. Find out what else they can do and possible side effects.

Source by [author_name]

WebMD,health,women’s health,birth control,birth control pills,how birth control pills work,family planning,prevent pregnancy,what happens if you miss a birth control pill,the basics

Atrial Fibrillation – Signs, Symptoms, and Complications

You may or may not notice atrial fibrillation. It often occurs with no signs or symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you may notice something that occurs only occasionally. Or, your symptoms may be frequent or serious. If you have heart disease that is worsening, you may notice more symptoms of atrial fibrillation. If your atrial fibrillation is undetected or left untreated, serious and even life-threatening complications can arise. They include stroke and heart failure.

Signs and symptoms

The most common symptom of atrial fibrillation is fatigue. Other signs and symptoms include:

Keep track of when and how often your symptoms occur, what you feel, and whether these things change over time. They are all important clues for your doctor.


When it is undetected or untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to serious complications. This is especially significant for African Americans. Even though whites have atrial fibrillation at higher rates, research has found that many of its complications—including stroke, heart disease, and heart failure—are more common among African Americans. Some complications of atrial fibrillation include:

  • Blood clots. With atrial fibrillation, the heart may not be able to pump the blood out properly, causing it to pool and form an abnormal blood clot in the heart. A piece of the clot—a type of embolus—can break off and travel through the blood to different parts of the body, blocking blood flow to the brain, lungs, intestine, spleen, or kidneys. Atrial fibrillation may also increase the risk of venous thromboembolism, which is a blood clot that forms in a vein.
  • Cognitive impairment and dementia. Some studies suggest that impaired cognition, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia occur more often among people with atrial fibrillation. This may be due to blockages in the blood vessels of the brain or reduced blood flow to the brain.
  • Heart attack. The risk of a heart attack from atrial fibrillation is highest among women and African Americans and especially in the first year after atrial fibrillation is diagnosed.
  • Heart failure. Atrial fibrillation raises your risk of heart failure because the heart is beating fast and unevenly. The heart’s chambers do not fill completely with blood and cannot pump enough blood to the lungs and body. Atrial fibrillation may also make your heart failure symptoms worse.
  • Stroke. If an embolus travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke. For some people, atrial fibrillation has no symptoms, and a stroke is the first sign of the condition. If you have atrial fibrillation, the risk of a stroke is higher if you are a woman.
  • Sudden cardiac arrest. With atrial fibrillation, there is an increased risk that the heart may suddenly and unexpectedly stop beating if you have another serious heart condition.
Atrial fibrillation and stroke. The illustration shows how a stroke can occur during atrial fibrillation. A blood clot can form in the left atrium of the heart. If an embolus, or a piece of the clot, breaks off and travels to an artery in the brain, it can block blood flow through the artery. The lack of blood flow to the portion of the brain fed by the artery causes a stroke.


Look for
  • Diagnosis will explain tests and procedures used to detect signs of atrial fibrillation and help rule our other conditions that may mimic atrial fibrillation.
  • Treatment will discuss treatment-related complications or side effects.
Syndicated Content Details:
Source URL:
Source Agency: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
Captured Date: 2018-09-27 13:46:00.0

Pain in the Ear | NIH News in Health

October 2018

Fending off Ear Infections

Being up all night with a child crying from the pain of an ear infection can be a nightmare. But it’s not uncommon. Most children in developed countries get at least one ear infection by the age of five.

Most ear infections happen in the middle ear, the part of the ear behind the eardrum. The middle ear is connected to the upper part of the throat by the eustachian tube. It normally lets fresh air into your middle ear and lets fluid drain out.

After a cold or other infection, the virus or bacteria that caused the illness can spread to the middle ear. When this happens, the eustachian tube can swell up or become blocked with mucus. This can trap the germs and cause an ear infection. The trapped germs can cause more swelling and fluid buildup. That’s what causes the pain of an ear infection.

Why do so many young children get ear infections? “In younger kids, the eustachian tube, as well as the immune systemThe system that protects your body from invading viruses, bacteria, and other microscopic threats., are still developing. Some kids might also have an underactive immune system that can’t fight the infection,” explains Dr. Michael Hoa, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and researcher at NIH.

In older children and adults, the eustachian tube is large and slanted to drain fluid from the middle ear. In younger children, this tube is narrower and more level, so it’s more likely to get blocked.

If the pain won’t go away or your child has fluid coming out of their ear, you should visit a doctor. Ear infections can also make a child fussy, cause a fever, or create trouble hearing.

Many ear infections don’t need to be treated. They often clear up on their own.

“There is a huge push not to overprescribe antibiotics,” Hoa says. Bacteria can become resistant to the effects of these drugs. So doctors try not to give them, except for severe cases.

When drugs are necessary, it’s important that they be taken for the full time your doctor tells you. But it’s not always easy to get young children to take medications.

A recent NIH-funded study tested whether antibiotics could be taken for less than the standard 10–day treatment. Unfortunately, the shortened treatment didn’t work as well and had no benefits.

NIH-funded researchers are now looking for better ways to treat an ear infection. One group is testing injectable gels to deliver medication right into the ear canal.

One major cause of ear infections is a type of bacteria called Haemophilus influenzae, or H. influenzae. These bacteria can cluster together to make a biofilm, a thin, slimy coating that your body has a hard time getting rid of. Even antibiotics can be ineffective against them. Ear infections that keep coming back often involve biofilms.

A vaccine introduced in 1987 already prevents ear infections caused by one strain of H. influenzae. Researchers are working on developing vaccines to protect against other strains. They’re also looking at what specific nutrients H. influenzae needs to grow the biofilms. Restricting those nutrients may be a new way to fight these bacteria.

If your child has repeated ear infections or trouble hearing, your doctor may suggest draining your child’s ear with small tubes to help maintain a healthy environment.

Ear infections aren’t contagious. But there are things you can do to lower your chances of getting one. See the Wise Choices box for tips on preventing ear infections.

Source link

How To Do The Heimlich Maneuver

Step-by-step instructions on how to do the Heimlich or abdominal thrusts and unblock a person’s airway.

Subscribe to WebMD here:

Follow WebMD here:

Source by [author_name]

Heimlich,choking,first aid,abdominal thrusts,heimlich maneuver,how to

What Are the Truths About Alcohol Use and Its Affect?

Alcohol has long been an integral part of American culture, tightly woven into the fabric of society and many distinct social groups.  It appears at almost every celebration, and most adults drink alcohol drink moderately and responsibly, without complications.

At the same time, alcohol-related problems among adults and adolescents—which result from drinking too much, too fast, or too often— are among the most significant public health issues in the United States and internationally.

We’ve been getting a lot of mixed messages about alcohol.  On one hand, moderate amounts have been linked to health benefits.  On the other, it is addictive and highly toxic when we drink too much of it, and it’s overuse is all to often associated with poor life choices.

The truth is the health effects of alcohol are actually quite complex.  They vary between individuals, and depend on the amount consumed and the type of alcoholic beverage used.


So, how does alcohol affect health?


According to the NIH, each year in the United States,

  • More than 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in our country. The first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.
  • Alcohol misuse costs the United States about $249 billion per year.
  • Approximately 15 million people had alcohol use disorder in 2016.4
  • More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems, according to a 2017 study.5

According to WHO, globally,

  • Alcohol misuse is the seventh leading risk factor for premature death and disability.
  • 3 million deaths every year result from harmful use of alcohol, this represent 5.3 % of all deaths.
  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
  • Overall 5.1 % of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In the age group 20–39 years approximately 13.5 % of the total deaths are alcohol-attributable.

There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioral disorders, other noncommunicable conditions as well as injuries.

The latest causal relationships have been established between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis as well as the course of HIV/AIDS.

Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.


What is alcohol?

The active ingredient in most alcoholic beverages is called ethanol.  Generally referred to as “alcohol,” ethanol is the substance that makes you drunk.  Ethanol is produced by yeasts when they digest sugar in certain carb rich foods, such as grapes (wine) or grains (beer).

Alcohol is the most popular recreational “drug” in the world. It can have very powerful effects on your mood and mental state.

Alcohol can reduce self-consciousness and shyness, making it easier for people to act without inhibition. At the same time, it can impair judgment and make people do things they end up regretting.


What are the Truths About Alcohol


Some people drink small amounts at a time, while others tend to binge drink. Binge drinking involves drinking large amounts at a time, in order to get drunk.  Alcohol is a psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties that has been widely used globally for centuries.


Alcohol is Neutralized by the Liver

The liver is a remarkable organ with hundreds of functions in the body.  One of its main functions is to neutralize all sorts of toxic substances we consume. For this reason, the liver is particularly vulnerable to damage by alcohol intake.

Liver diseases caused by alcohol consumption are collectively called alcoholic liver diseases.  The first of these to appear is fatty liver, characterized by increased fat inside liver cells.  Fatty liver develops in 90% of those who drink more than 16 g (about half an ounce) of alcohol per day and is usually symptomless and fully reversible.

In heavy drinkers, binge drinking may cause the liver to become inflamed. In worst case scenarios, liver cells die and get replaced with scar tissue, leading to a serious condition called cirrhosis.  Cirrhosis is irreversible and associated with many serious health problems. In advanced cirrhosis, getting a new liver (a liver transplant) may be the only option.


Alcohol and the Brain

Excessive alcohol consumption can have numerous adverse effects on the brain.  Ethanol basically reduces communication between brain cells, a short-term effect responsible for many of the symptoms of being drunk.

Binge drinking may even lead to a blackout, a phenomenon characterized by memory loss (amnesia) during a heavy drinking episode.  These effects are only temporary, but chronic alcohol abuse may cause permanent changes in the brain, often leading to impaired brain function.

The brain is actually very sensitive to damage caused by chronic alcohol abuse, which may increase the risk of dementia and cause brain shrinkage in middle-aged and elderly people.  In worst case scenarios, the severity of brain damage may impair people’s ability to lead an independent life.

Conversely, drinking moderately has been linked with reduced risk of dementia, especially in elderly people.


Alcohol and Depression

The association of alcohol intake and depression is close but complex.  While alcohol intake and depression seem to increase the risk of each other simultaneously, alcohol abuse may be the stronger causal factor.

Many people suffering from anxiety and depression drink intentionally to reduce stress and improve mood.  This may work for a few hours, but will worsen overall mental health and lead to a vicious cycle.

Heavy drinking has actually been shown to be a major cause of depression in some individuals, and treating the alcohol abuse leads to big improvements.


Alcohol and Body Weight

Obesity is a serious health concern.  Alcohol is actually the second most energy rich nutrient after fat, providing about 7 calories per gram.

Beer contains a similar amount of calories as sugary soft drinks, ounce for ounce, whereas red wine contains twice as much.  However, studies investigating the link between alcohol and weight have provided inconsistent results.

It seems that drinking habits and preferences may play a role.  For example, moderate drinking is linked to reduced weight gain,, whereas heavy drinking is linked to increased weight gain.  Also, drinking beer regularly may cause weight gain, whereas wine consumption may reduce it.


Alcohol and Cardiovascular Health

Cardiovascular disease is the leading causes of death in modern society.  It is actually a broad category of diseases, the most common of which are heart attacks and strokes.

The relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular disease is complex, and seems to depend on several factors.  Light to moderate drinking is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, while heavy drinking appears to increase the risk.

There are several possible reasons for the beneficial effects of drinking moderately.  Moderate alcohol consumption may:

  • Raise HDL (the “good”) cholesterol in the bloodstream.
  • Decrease blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • Lower the concentration of fibrinogen in the blood, a substance that contributes to blood clots.
  • Cut the risk of diabetes, another major risk factor of heart disease.
  • Reduce stress and anxiety temporarily.


Alcohol and Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a common metabolic disease, currently affecting about 8% of the world’s population.  Characterized by abnormally high blood sugar, type 2 diabetes is caused by reduced uptake of glucose (blood sugar) by cells, a phenomenon known as insulin resistance.

Drinking alcohol in moderation appears to reduce insulin resistance, helping to fight the main symptoms of diabetes.  As a result, drinking alcohol with meals may cut the rise in blood sugar by 16-37% compared to water.   Blood sugar between meals (fasting blood glucose) may also go down.

In fact, the overall risk of diabetes tends to be reduced with moderate alcohol consumption. However, when it comes to heavy drinking and binge drinking, the risk is increased.


Alcohol and Cancer

Cancer is a serious disease caused by abnormal growth of cells.  Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for cancers of the mouth, throat, colon, breast, and liver.

The cells lining the mouth and throat are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of alcohol. Not surprising, since they are directly exposed to the stuff.  Even light alcohol consumption, 1 drink per day, is linked to a 20% increased risk of mouth and throat cancer.

The risk increases with the daily amount consumed. More than 4 drinks daily appear to cause a five-fold increase in the risk of mouth and throat cancer, and also increase the risk of breast, colon and liver cancer.


Drinking During Pregnancy May Cause Birth Defects

Alcohol abuse during pregnancy is the leading preventable cause of birth defects in the US.  Binge drinking early in pregnancy is particularly risky for the developing baby.  In fact, it may have adverse effects on development, growth, intelligence, and behavior, which may affect the child for the rest of its life.


Alcohol is Addictive, Leading to Alcoholism in Predisposed Individuals

Some people become addicted to the effects of alcohol, a condition called alcohol dependence (alcoholism).  An estimated 12% of Americans are believed to have been dependent on alcohol at some point in their life.

Alcohol dependence is one of the main causes of alcohol abuse and disability in the US and a strong risk factor for various diseases.  Numerous factors can predispose people to problem drinking, such as family history, social environment, mental health, and genes.

Many different subtypes of alcohol dependence have been defined, characterized by alcohol cravings, inability to abstain, or loss of self-control when drinking.  As a rule of thumb, if alcohol is causing problems in your life, then you may have a problem with alcohol dependence or alcoholism.


Alcohol and Risk of Death

Abraham Lincoln once said, “It has long been recognized that the problems with alcohol relate not to the use of a bad thing, but to the abuse of a good thing.”  Interestingly, there appears to be a grain of truth in his words. Studies suggest that light and moderate consumption of alcohol may to cut the risk of premature death, especially in Western societies.

At the same time, alcohol abuse is the third main cause of preventable death in the US,  being an important cause of chronic diseases, accidents, traffic crashes, and social problems.


Factors affecting alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm

A variety of factors have been identified at the individual and the societal level, which affect the levels and patterns of alcohol consumption and the magnitude of alcohol-related problems in populations.

Environmental factors include economic development, culture, availability of alcohol, and the comprehensiveness and levels of implementation and enforcement of alcohol policies. For a given level or pattern of drinking, vulnerabilities within a society are likely to have similar differential effects as those between societies. Although there is no single risk factor that is dominant, the more vulnerabilities a person has, the more likely the person is to develop alcohol-related problems as a result of alcohol consumption.

The impact of alcohol consumption on chronic and acute health outcomes in populations is largely determined by 2 separate but related dimensions of drinking:

  1. the total volume of alcohol consumed, and
  2. the pattern of drinking.

The context of drinking plays an important role in occurrence of alcohol-related harm, particularly associated with health effects of alcohol intoxication, and, on rare occasions, also the quality of alcohol consumed. Alcohol consumption can have an impact not only on the incidence of diseases, injuries and other health conditions, but also on the course of disorders and their outcomes in individuals.

There are gender differences in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity, as well as levels and patterns of alcohol consumption. The percentage of alcohol-attributable deaths among men amount to 7.7 % of all global deaths compared to 2.6 % of all deaths among women. Total alcohol per capita consumption in 2010 among male and female drinkers worldwide was on average 19.4 litres for males and 7.0 litres of pure alcohol for females.


Ways to reduce the burden from harmful use of alcohol

The health, safety and socioeconomic problems attributable to alcohol can be effectively reduced and requires actions on the levels, patterns and contexts of alcohol consumption and the wider social determinants of health.

Countries have a responsibility for formulating, implementing, monitoring and evaluating public policies to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. Substantial scientific knowledge exists for policy-makers on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the following strategies:

  • regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages (in particular to younger people);
  • regulating and restricting the availability of alcohol;
  • enacting appropriate drink-driving policies;
  • reducing demand through taxation and pricing mechanisms;
  • raising awareness of public health problems caused by harmful use of alcohol and ensuring support for effective alcohol policies;
  • providing accessible and affordable treatment for people with alcohol-use disorders; and
  • implementing screening and brief interventions programs for hazardous and harmful drinking in health services


What is the Real Harm in Consuming Alcohol?

The use of alcohol can also result in harm to other people, such as family members, friends, co-workers and strangers. Moreover, the harmful use of alcohol results in a significant health, social and economic burden on society at large.

Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions. Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence, major noncommunicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases, as well as injuries resulting from violence and road clashes and collisions.

A significant proportion of the disease burden attributable to alcohol consumption arises from unintentional and intentional injuries, including those due to road traffic crashes, violence, and suicides, and fatal alcohol-related injuries tend to occur in relatively younger age groups.

The latest causal relationships on the rise are those between harmful drinking and incidence of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, as well as the incidence and course of HIV/AIDS. Alcohol consumption by an expectant mother may cause fetal alcohol syndrome and pre-term birth complications.


Bottom Line

The health effects of alcohol range from “possibly good” to “absolutely disastrous.”  Alcohol is one of those things that depend entirely on the individual — good for some, disastrous for others.

Drinking small amounts, especially of red wine, appears linked to various health benefits.  On the other hand, alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are linked to severe negative effects on both physical and mental health.

If you enjoy alcohol and you can truly be moderate in its use, you might continue to do what you are doing.  However, if you tend to drink excessively, or alcohol causes problems in your life, then consider avoiding it.