Category Archives: Health News

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Alcohol Consumption

It is safe to say that many of us like an occasional drink to unwind, but did you know that the alcohol consumption guidelines have recently been updated? The UK Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) alcohol guidelines for both men and women state that it is safest not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis.

Here at Covance Leeds, we need our clinical trial participants to be within the recommended consumption guidelines when applying for our clinical trials, so we wanted to share the guidelines with you. Our clinical trial participants need to consume no more than the weekly recommended alcohol units in order to be able to take part in our studies – so that is 14 units per week or less.

Cutting down on drinking does not have to be boring now that there are so many great tasting soft drinks and low alcohol drinks on the market! Plus, there are numerous health benefits to reducing your alcohol intake and you can easily track the units of alcohol you consume each week using this handy tool from Drink Aware:

Some of the benefits attributed to reduced alcohol intake include:

  • Overall improved physical health
  • Saving money
  • Improved mental health
  • Reduced calorie intake
  • Improved appearance
  • Increased energy levels

There has never been a better time to reduce your alcohol consumption, with the availability of tracking tools to monitor what you drink and so many health reasons to cut down on what you consume!

We would love to see as many new recruits as possible to our paid clinical trials and we look forward to welcoming new volunteers soon!

world aids day tube advertising

10 Things you should know about HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day 2016

Throughout the 80s and 90s, the AIDS epidemic dominated headlines making this one of the most feared diseases in living memory. In recent years, the word ‘epidemic’ is perhaps more quickly associated with emerging diseases like ebola and the zika virus. But while its progress has slowed AIDS has by no means gone away, and it’s worth reflecting on some facts this World AIDS Day.

aids-ribbon1 – AIDS has caused over 7 million deaths since 2000

We tend to think of the 80s and 90s as the height of the AIDS pandemic. Since then, the incidence of AIDS has decreased and the life expectancy of HIV patients has increased, but the disease remains a serious threat to world health.

2 – There were 2.1 million new cases diagnosed in 2015

That’s a big number. By comparison, there were 29,000 reported cases of ebola between March 2014 and Jan 2016. Clearly, this is no time to become complacent about AIDS!

3 – The rate of infection is slowing

It’s not all bad news! Since 2010, the number of new cases has decreased by 6%. The huge public awareness campaigns of the late 20th Century have had a huge effect on slowing the spread – all the more reason why AIDS should still be on our minds and in our newspapers.

4 – Routine screening is ESSENTIAL

The first symptoms of the HIV virus are easily mistaken for a cold or ‘flu. After this patients can carry HIV/AIDS for many years without showing any symptoms. By the time patients feel ‘ill enough’ to get tested, it may be too late for meaningful help. Screening is confidential, widely available through your GP surgery or sexual health clinics. Increasingly, results can be returned within 1 day, and certain tests may not even require a blood sample.

hiv-myths-ver5_05 – It is NOT spread through bodily contact

You cannot catch HIV by touching or kissing an infected person, or by sharing their cutlery, towels, clothes or living space. When AIDS was en emerging disease and not fully understood, myths and misconceptions like these heaped stigma and social isolation on top of patients’ suffering.


6 – Its origins are not fully known

AIDS was first observed in 1981 and named in 1982; however, it is believed that HIV might have originated in West African Primates, and may have been transmitted to humans as far back as the early 20th century.

Until very recently, a man named Gaetan Dugas was widely regarded as ‘patient zero’, responsible for introducing and spreading AIDS around North America in the early 80s. However, news broke in October 2016 that Dugas was one of many individuals with the same generation of the virus, and that circulation of AIDS in the US most likely began at least a decade earlier.


7 – The drugs DO work

There is currently no cure for AIDS, but antiretroviral drugs slow the progress of the virus and can give a near-normal life expectancy for HIV positive patients. Without treatment, the prognosis is around 11 years from the point of infection. With antiretroviral treatment, patients are generally expected to live into their 70s.

8 – PEP can help patients who have been exposed

PEP stands for ‘Post Exposure Prophylaxis’ – a course of drugs given to healthy individuals who have been exposed to the HIV virus – for example through unprotected sex, or a needlestick injury. It can also be given to the newborn babies of HIV positive mothers. If introduced within 72 hours of exposure, PEP is highly effective at preventing HIV from being contracted.

9 – PrEP can prevent transmission to healthy men and women

For someone who anticipates that they could be at risk of exposure, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is an effective way to prevent HIV transmission. PrEP involves healthy individuals taking a course of drugs which are normally used to treat HIV/AIDS. PrEP is not currently available on the NHS, but after a parliamentary debate, it was recently recommended that PrEP be made available to high-risk individuals, such as gay and bisexual men, or people whose partner is HIV positive.

aids vaccination clinical trials10 – A vaccine could be next

Vaccinations have allowed us to combat polio, measles and rubella, and to globally eradicate smallpox. A vaccination against HIV is one of the Holy Grails of clinical research, and a huge clinical trial is about to begin in South Africa. 5400 healthy men and women will be testing a new injection, which it is hoped will prevent HIV in at least 50% of cases.


Since it was first classified in 1982, AIDs has gone from being a life sentence to an increasingly manageable condition, and the development of an effective vaccine could sound the death knell for this destructive virus.

None of these developments would have been possible without clinical research, and without volunteers like you, medical developments would grind to a halt.


World Mental Health Day Mandala

Take Care of Yourself on World Mental Health Day

In the UK, one in every 4 people will be diagnosed with a mental health condition like depression or anxiety at some point. But caring for your mental health doesn’t begin and end with a diagnosis! Just like your physical health, your mental wellbeing can fluctuate from day to day, and there are plenty of self-care activities you can enjoy regularly to keep your mental health in peak condition.

1 – Take A Long Soak

bath taps mental health day long soakFor many, this is the ultimate definition of taking some ‘Me Time’. Smartphones and tablets have led to a world where we’re more connected than ever. Connecting digitally means we’re constantly sharing our time – and ourselves – with the online community. A bathtub is the perfect place to lock your phone and the whole rest of the world outside.

But there’s more! There are also benefits to laying down in warm water (not boiling hot, as this can put your body under stress). Being in this position predisposes you to relaxation by overriding your body’s fight-or-flight response, the survival instinct which is essential to getting us out of life-and-death situations. Because your body is at ease, your mind is reassured that you are in no immediate danger, and it slows production of the hormones which get us ready for a fight!

A good night’s sleep is increasingly being linked to good physical and mental health, and a bath also happens to be a great way to get ready for a restful night.

Have you ever noticed that feeling when the night draws in, you start to feel a little bit chilly and your thoughts turn to snuggling up under a nice warm duvet? ‘Cooling off’ is a part of our natural sleep cycle, and a drop in body temperature triggers the production of sleep hormones. So warming your body artificially in the bath and allowing it to cool down again is a cheeky shortcut to a blissful sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, taking a warm bath at bedtime could be a good alternative to lying in bed, fretting and watching the clock.

2- Colouring In

It’s fair to say that the trend for adult colouring in has really taken off. You can’t venture into a bookstore or newsagent without being overwhelmed by a huge choice of colouring books. Surprisingly, colouring books for adults were being prescribed by renowned Psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s.

I must confess, I tried some colouring in for my Cynical Trials project, but before I could write up my thoughts, I wanted to try another page. And another. And now I’m on my second book. What is it that’s got me hooked?

colouring pencils world mental health dayWell, for someone who spends their working life on Social Media, it is great to have something to do with my hands which doesn’t involve scrolling, clicking or typing. Inside and outside of work, social sharing has become second nature to me, so it’s liberating to spend time on a project which I have no intention of showing to anyone. There’s something gratifying about completing a complex design, or finding an unexpectedly juicy colour combination, and the consequences of ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘messing it up’ are virtually non-existent.

Like bathing, colouring in helps to mute the brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response, giving you a reprieve from the stress hormones which insist you better update your status or check your emails. But perhaps better still, colouring in doesn’t ‘switch off’ your brain, but forces you to focus. Considering the colour, balance and aesthetics of your piece requires gentle concentration, and could be particularly beneficial to anyone who has a tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts or unpleasant memories.

3 – Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

However mentally strong you are feeling, the above suggestions or any self-care ritual could help to improve your sense of wellbeing. But what if they don’t?

For a huge number of people (one in 11 in the UK), self care activities like the ones above are not enough. It might be time to speak to your GP if:

  • Your low mood has lasted for more than 2 weeks
  • You are finding it difficult to complete day-to-day tasks at work or at home because of your mental health.
  • If you’ve had any thoughts about harming yourself, or thought that your loved-ones are better off without you.

world mental health day depression feels likeLong-term low mood disorders like depression and anxiety happen because of a chemical imbalance; the brain produces serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’, but reabsorbs it before you feel the benefits. This is a medical condition, and is not something which you have to just ‘put up with’. After speaking with you, and getting a full understanding of your situation, your GP might recommend a course of medication called an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) to help increase the serotonin level in your brain.

Speaking to the Doctor about your mood can be daunting, but if you would take medication for a physical condition like a migraine, diabetes or asthma, there’s no reason to view this any differently.

For more hints, tips and suggestions about self care, visit

If you are concerned about your mental wellbeing but feel uneasy about seeking medical help, this article is well worth a read

Rio 2016 banner Olympics

Olympic Spirit – A Potential Treatment for National Gloom

As recent news would suggest, taking part in a clinical trial and taking part in the Olympic Games may be more similar than you would think. You’d be forgiven for thinking that both would require you to be administered with some form of drug, if you are a Russian athletics competitor anyway. In the midst of the recent negative controversies surrounding the upcoming Games in Rio de Janeiro, now would be a perfect time to remind ourselves of how the Olympic Games can be the perfect distraction, in the short term at least, to everyday worries. And also how the Olympic spirit is the embodiment of the values that we should all promote and aspire to live by.

Olympic Games 2012 Rings on Tower BridgeNaturally, we can’t think about the Olympic Games and not recall that special fortnight in 2012, where the oldest and greatest sporting competition came to these shores for the first time in 64 years. After years of doubt and cynicism surrounding whether hosting the Games was worth the cost at a time of deep recession, the opening ceremony of London 2012 arrived. Before we knew it, the gold rush began and the cynicism that once threatened to overflow, had been replaced with unreserved optimism. The widespread optimism was a welcome culture change to the traditional British pessimism and for that particular moment in time it was as though anything was possible. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but for those two weeks in 2012, we were together, and it felt like the little problems that we all share were a distant memory. Memories which were exchanged with national pride and a celebration of just what we could acheive if we put our minds to it.

The sense of togetherness is also created through the worldwide coverage of The Olympic Games. The knowledge that so many Olympic rings peace sign and Brazilian flagothers, from all around the globe, are equally as hooked to the action as yourself, makes you feel just as part of the Games as the athletes themselves. The vast reach of the Games can make it the perfect place to demonstrate the value of togetherness and friendship. Sometimes in the face of adversity. Proof of this was shown at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. During the time of the Games, tensions between Russia and Georgia were at breaking point as the countries went to war. In an odd twist of fate, two female competitors from both countries, shared a medal podium in the shooting event. In a stand of defiance against the ongoing war, both competitors also shared an embrace along with the sentiments that “There should be no hatred among athletes and people”. Sentiments that we can all echo.

Another value that is a paramount element of the Olympic spirit is that of excellence and determination. The athletes taking part can be a shining example to those watching of how hard work can get to you to the top of your game. We could all learn a lot from an Olympic athlete’s mentality of stretching every sinew to its absolute limit in pursuit of that illustrious medal. It is definitely a mentality we try to promote here at Covance when carrying out clinical research, in order to develop new treatments.  The Olympic Games also emphasizes the importance of taking part. Winning isn’t everything and sometimes just making it to the start line can be an achievement in itself. Consider the performance of the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Winter Olympics; although they didn’t even register a time in the Games after crashing dramatically in their qualifying run, their determination to succeed against all odds won the hearts of the world. Just watch “Cool Runnings” and see for yourself!

Christ the Redeemer Rio and Olympic Rings 2016These are just a few of the values associated with the Olympic Games and one of the many reasons we are all enticed by it every time those rings roll back around. The Games in 2012 invoked a special spirit across the country where it just seemed as though we were all extremely positive. We would no doubt love for that spirit to return, if only for a little while, at a time where the national outlook is less certain. Hopefully Rio will be able to provide this, and do the same for Brazil that it did for us four years ago.

So with the Rio Games just a javelin throw away. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself becoming an expert judge in the sychronised diving 10 metre platform final, or being able to distinguish the difference between an ippon and a waza-ari as your recently adopted favourite judoka goes for gold!

Meet Danny – Our First Psoriasis Patient!

This year, we’ve been working hard to find men and women with psoriasis to help us test a promising new treatment for the disease. Patients have responded to us in droves, but for this early stage of testing we specifically need people who are quite severely affected (having psoriasis covering an area on the body larger than 10 handprints) but who are not currently using the strongest forms of medication.

Enter Danny! A long time psoriasis sufferer, Danny is the first volunteer to have checked into our clinic and been dosed with this potentially breakthrough drug – and he’s travelled all the way from Swansea to get involved. We had a long chat about how psoriasis has affected him and his hopes and expectations for the clinical trial.

‘In Welsh folklore, there’s a goddess called Olwen, which means ‘white trail’. Wherever she goes, she leaves a trail of white flowers in her footsteps, and I feel a bit like that- leaving white flakes behind me. I don’t normally sit on dark-coloured furniture like this!’ he tells me, pointing to the navy blue settee in our rec room.

‘Generally, other people are very accepting of my psoriasis – they either don’t notice it or are too polite to say anything. The worst effect it has is on my own self-esteem. It makes me feel unattractive. I feel as though other people will see me as a little bit freaky.’

stinky shed coal tar treatment for psoriasis
Danny says that while using coal-tar he smelled like a newly-creosoted shed!

‘I have tried several different treatments in the past. This is where I used to apply coal-tar’ he shows me patches on his shin where his skin has actually been stained brown. ‘It wrecked my clothes and it smelled awful! It’s very hard to love yourself or even anyone else when you’re stinking like a shed!

‘I’ve also tried acupuncture, which was costly and time consuming and can take years to work. I started taking Vitamin D after noticing that it was improved by holidays in hot, sunny countries. But I got to a point where I just felt like my psoriasis was too severe, and that nothing I did would make a significant difference.

‘In my experience, it is hard to find helpful information about psoriasis – I haven’t found any good advice on the internet or even a good explanation of how and why people are affected by it. So far, I haven’t even found a Doctor who has been able to do anything other than be sympathetic. In a way, I feel like I’ve become an expert on my own psoriasis, but I’ve had to learn everything through trial and error. It would be great if research like this made it easier for patients to be diagnosed, to understand their condition and to control it effectively.’

I asked him if he had any concerns about taking part in testing a brand new drug?psoriasis trial test tube and pills colourful

‘Fortunately, I have a family member who works in a clinical environment, so I already knew that trials like this happen all the time and that safety is taken really seriously. I was a little bit nervous when I learned that the drug is an immunosuppressant (a type of drug which works by reducing the body’s immune response), but once it was explained I thought -Well, somebody has to do this and I’m willing to be the one who gives it a try. It’s a bit like air travel or riding a rollercoaster – there is some risk involved, but wasn’t going to let that stop me.

‘What worried me more is that I really don’t like being told what to do, when to eat, things like that, so I thought the residential part of the study might not agree with me. But the staff have been so welcoming and good humoured – there’s a real sense of community in the clinic and that’s made me feel very comfortable. Also, I’m really enjoying having this time to think – I’m a musician, I run a business ( and I have a family, so life can be pretty hectic.

‘One thing I am really missing is caffeine, which I can’t have while I’m staying here. I am surprised at how much I’m craving a really good cup of coffee. I am actually fantasising about making up a pint of hot water with two teabags and downing it!’

With new drugs like this one, we cannot guarantee patients who volunteer that they will see a therapeutic effect. We need to answer a range of questions like ‘What is the right dosage level? Should this be taken on a full or empty stomach? How long does it remain in the system?’ before we can start assessing how successful it is. With this in mind, I asked Danny what his hopes were for the study?

Danny psoriasis clinical trial volunteer smiling‘In the short term, I’m seeing the study as a chance to better understand the condition and to think about how I manage it. I’ve accepted it as part of my life for a long time now, and this has made me reconsider whether there could be a medical solution. I will certainly start managing it more actively.

Of course I do hope that this research has a positive outcome for psoriasis patients in the future. Some people just get psoriasis, no-one really knows why, and that sucks. It would be great to think that something I’d done made a difference. That motivated me to take part much more than the money (volunteers receive from £100 per day for participating in clinical research)’

But does he think there’s any chance he might see more of an immediate improvement in his own skin?

‘No, I don’t think so. At least, I don’t want to let myself think so. I’ve got used to being disappointed, so at this point I really don’t want to let myself believe that it might work. If the treatment improves it a little bit, fantastic. If it makes it go away (which I don’t think it will)… well, that’d be fun.’

I’m pleasantly surprised when Danny comes back 2 weeks later for a follow-up appointment and asks to see me. He shows me his arms and legs, where the psoriasis plaques are significantly less red and inflamed, and he tells me that the ‘scalyness’ which meant he left a white trail is almost gone.

Of course, we cannot say that all of our volunteers on this study will see such dramatic results, but we’re all delighted that the trial has made such an encouraging start.

‘The physician I’ve just seen tells me that it could end up looking even better than this once the dying skin cells have sloughed off and been replaced. I’ve not known my skin to ever improve so drastically over such a short period, so I am very happy with the result. I’d definitely recommend anyone who’s considering it to get involved.’

If you think you might qualify for the study or you would like to find out more about any of our current trials, give us a call on 0113 394 5200 or apply for our paid clinical trials and we will call you within a few days.

lemon International Clinical Trials Day Scurvy

Cynical Trials: Detoxing (for Dummies?)

You’ve all heard this story ad nauseam. Christmas is a time to indulge and overindulge, and millions of people spend the early part of January trying to atone for all that merriment and undo the damage done by weeks of booziness.

wineAs I floundered my way through a quiet New Year’s Eve in the Yorkshire Dales, feeling sluggish, a bit bloated and rather achy all over, I thought – like millions of others probably did – ‘I need a change and a fresh start.’ I didn’t relish the thought. Then it occurred to me ‘I can write a blog about it!’ and I was suddenly much more resolute about my resolution!

Before the New Year’s festivities began, I started researching detoxes – how could I do one? What would it do for me? And what are all these toxins I’m purportedly full of, anyway?

One very enthusiastic site told me that a detox would help to cleanse my bloodstream by ridding the liver of impurities. It listed some tell-tale signs that my body might be crying out for a good detox-ing, including:

  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Irritated skin
  • Low-grade infections
  • Puffy eyes/ dark circles
  • ‘brainfog’ or an inability to maintain concentration

Wow! That pretty much describes me… it’s a pity I haven’t detoxed sooner! How do I get started?

The website listed a few things which I should cut out of my diet… including solid food for the next 3 – 5 days. Now, hold on – as keen as I am to lose a few pounds, gain a bit of energy, and write an entertaining blog post, fasting just feels like crossing the line to me. Over the last 30 years I have got to know my body pretty well, and taking on a ‘juice cleansing’ diet just feels like setting myself up for failure, and unleashing a very grumpy version of myself on my family. I read on, and decide to turn the web’s advice into a gentler plan which I actually stand a chance of following.

To give my liver a break, I should avoid cigarettes and alcohol. So far, so good – I will continue not to smoke, and as an occasional drinker I’m sure I can meet the challenge of a Dry January. I should also cut out refined sugars and saturated fats – I lock away the last remnants of Christmas feasting and vow to reach for fruit if I’m feeling peckish between meals.

And then there’s the real kicker. I will need to go without caffeine.

Okay. I can do this. I CAN do this… can I?

At times like this, I always think of our clinical trial volunteers – study restrictions mean they have to go days, sometimes weeks at a time without so much as a decaf. Hats off to you – it would be an absolute deal-breaker for me, and I’m inspired that so many of you are ready to do this without any hesitation!

The website also implies that my detox will be improved by taking a vitamin supplement or drinking some sort of herbal tea, and seeing as I’m bereft of tea and coffee, I decide I’ll go for the latter option. On New Year’s Day, I’m scanning the supermarket shelves and I discover that one of my preferred brands sells a Detox Tea – hurray!

milk thistleMy new tea contains lemon, verbena and milk thistle. Regular readers of the blog will know that I don’t shy away from drinking strange beverages, and this combination doesn’t sound half bad, so I’m not worried. Until I brew a cup and drink it.


I’m quite a regular drinker of herbal teas, and I know that I like both lemon and verbena, so I guess it must be the milk thistle that adds that ear-waxy aftertaste. Steeling myself, I drink to my health, and manage to polish off three cups before I go to bed.

On 2nd January, I wake up with a headache. It’s the kind of headache I associate with needing a strong cup of coffee. ‘Good!’ I think over the loud throbbing. ‘The caffeine is leaving my system.’ I sip some more detox tea over breakfast, and use Google to find out a bit more about my acrid new friend, Milk Thistle.

A company which sells health supplements suggests that it may help with symptoms of indigestion and stomach upsets, but is at pains to point out that this assertion is ‘based on traditional use only’. In other words, it has not been proven effective in clinical trials. I’m interested to learn that it is also traditionally used to treat toadstool poisoning, but once again I’m unable to find any studies or examples of this treatment being used effectively. As I delve further, one site tells me that milk thistle should be avoided during pregnancy and breastfeeding, while another argues that it’s a great supplement for new mothers, and aids quicker milk production. I’m liking the stuff less and less.

The afternoon wears on, pain is blossoming through my head, and I’m still reading about detoxes. In a Guardian article, Dr Edzard Ernst shuts down the very idea of detoxing, stating ‘There is no known way… to make something that works perfectly well in a healthy body work better’. He argues that the only time when detoxing is a valid concept is if you are an addict purging drugs from your system.

What am I trying to get out of my system? Certainly nothing as harmful as an opiate or narcotic. Ernst goes on to say ‘If [toxins] were named, they could be tested before and after to measure effectiveness’ – it’s a compelling point, when I have read so much about toxins and they haven’t been named on a single site.

While I’m on Google, I do one last search for ‘how do I treat a caffeine withdrawal headache’. The consensus is that I should have some caffeine. Ha ha.

Instead, I opt to go back to bed for a few hours. When I wake up with a head just as achey as before, I am worried. I’m not at all prone to headaches, let alone ones which are so intense for so long. The pounding is made worse by anxious thoughts which rush through my brain… what if this isn’t related to my detox? What if I’m coming down with something? Or worse?

cuppaDeciding that enough is enough, my Mum nips into the kitchen and returns with 2 paracetamol… and a large, steaming mug of tea. Yep. I retoxed. And it felt great. Whether it was the pills or the caffeine that did it, my headache quickly subsided and it hasn’t been back since. And I think that maybe that’s because I’ve allowed myself just one cup of tea or coffee each day this week.

Did I do the right thing? Would pushing through the pain barrier and sticking to my detox have made all the difference to me? Maybe I should have gone the whole hog and tried a juice cleanse? I would love to hear what you think, but based on what I’ve read and how I’m feeling… I regret nothing!

Research Featured

Could Microbiome Balancing Hold The Key To Better Health?

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Microbes play a large part in determining our health, not simply as the mechanism by which we sometimes become ill but also as part of what keeps us healthy. It is hypothesized that bacteria may even help us by preventing the development of certain diseases, such as those caused or exacerbated by allergens, like asthma, and other anthropologically recent conditions, such as obesity or type 2 diabetes. Each one of us carries a distinct set of bacteria on our skin, in our mouths and internally, many of which are introduced during the process of passing along the birth canal; while we may associate bacteria with unhygienic environments, much of our microbiome, the set of microbes which live on and in us carries out vital services to support the effective functions of our organs. Many disorders and conditions have become more prevalent over the past few years and incidences have increased exponentially over a matter of decades or longer.

Misuse Of AntibioticsAntibiotics

A great deal of attention has recently fallen upon the use, overuse or misuse of antibiotics and the steps which are being taken to address the problem. This is not because of the cost of wasted medication, important as that is, but due to far deeper concerns about the effect that antibiotics have been having on the characteristics of some of the microbes we carry on our bodies; namely, that they have developed a resistance to treatment with known antibiotics. Outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant illnesses are particularly dangerous to the most vulnerable members of society: the very old and young and those whose immune systems have been weakened by illness.

While it's easy to see how medicines aimed at killing bacteria could affect their numbers and characteristics, what many don't realise is that other aspects of modern life are also having a profound effect on the microbiome each one of us carries for life. Actions we perform unthinkingly, such as using antibacterial cleaning products, perfumed soaps and antiperspirants, as well as eating heavily processed foods, can all deplete the amount and diversity of our microbes. While experts have long believed that the absence of these things in our ancestors' lives helped to protect them from many illnesses, it is only relatively recently that clear evidence of reduced microbial diversity has emerged.

A Chance Encounter

Purely by chance, a helicopter crew passing over the Amazonas region of Venezuela observed a collection of homesteads of which there had been no previous record. On investigation, the people living in this isolated spot – the Yanomami – were discovered to have a lifestyle that has been preserved since shortly after the last ice age and, therefore, to have also avoided the effects of modern chemicals on their microbiomes.

Shabano YanomamiScientists were able to investigate, with sensitivity, the levels of microbial life on the bodies of these people and in their mouths and digestive tracts and to compare their data to that of people from modernized backgrounds who have been exposed to microbial changes. The results of this comparison show that the Yanomami tribe have a 40 per cent more diverse set of microbes than those who have experienced a more modern style of living.

Although the Yanomami suffer from many of the diseases endemic to their part of the world, such as malaria and river blindness, experts observed that they are free of newer conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. This allows for the reasonable assumption that there is a correlation between microbial diversity and the development of a variety of conditions. Because microbial ecologists have been able to compare these unaffected individuals with both westernised and partly westernised subjects, they have managed to observe a gradual difference in microbial diversity. Additionally, experts have recognised certain triggers, including the early introduction of antibiotics and caesarean deliveries, as critical factors in the creation of bacterial inadequacy. This is likely to be due to a crucial period of development of the immune system during infancy; if this development is hampered, the body will simply be unable to learn which microbes are beneficial and which are harmful. This inability to distinguish between microbes will lead to the immune system attacking the wrong bacteria and leaving it incapable of carrying out the processes that are necessary to prevent a vast range of ailments, many of which are becoming the scourge of modern living.

Redressing The Balance

Dr. Dantas, a microbial ecologist who has studied the Yanomami's microbial profile, has found some potentially useful information which may lead to being able to redress the imbalance in westerners' microbiomes. For example, even microbiomes that have not been exposed to antibiotics, such as those of the Yanomami, contain the genes for antibiotic resistance, although they remain dormant.

Dr. Dantas believes this information suggests that microbial diversity could be 'topped up' by introducing additional friendly bacteria. This technique has already had a certain amount of success as a treatment for diseases of the colon and doctors remain tentatively hopeful of expanding its use into other spheres.

Finding A Solution

In addition to simply harvesting bacteria to restock a depleted microbiome, there is certainly considerable potential for bioprospecting, which would involve studying the properties of biological matter in order to reproduce it synthetically.

Clinical ResearchWith laboratory-grown synthetic compounds simulating the effects of bacteria, it would theoretically be possible to reverse or halt the damage to the immune system and metabolism that results from lower microbial diversity.

As this development has yet to be realised, those who study this field are very keen for the general population to be made aware of the steps they can take to avoid further damage. These would include reducing the use of antibiotics and assiduously following the instructions for taking them when they are deemed to be necessary. A surprising piece of advice from the experts is that an excessively sterile environment removes the opportunities for the immune system to work on identifying harmful bacteria and prevents the build-up of antibodies. While there may not yet be a cure for many modern diseases, it certainly seems as though balancing the microbiomes could be a valid direction for future research.


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How Bioprospecting The Past Could Help Us Develop New Medicines

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Contemporary Bioprospecting: a new focus

The concept of bioprospecting the planet’s natural environment to discover new sources of drugs and treatments to combat disease is a well-established practice in modern medical science. However, the successful reappraisal and deployment of the ‘wisdom of the ancients’, such as the recent discovery that an Anglo-Saxon remedy is just as effective against MRSA as a modern-day treatment, suggests an entirely new direction for creative bio-prospectors.

Early Chinese and Arabic medical texts have already proved a promising source of long-forgotten remedies, and many researchers believe that an historical examination of ancient cultures, plus an open-minded review of time-honoured folk medicines, has similar potential to save modern scientists much time and expense reinventing the wheel.

Medieval microbiologyBalds Leechbook

A speculative collaboration between an Anglo-Saxon scholar, Christina Lee, and a Nottingham University microbiologist, Freya Harrison, took a fresh look at ‘Bald’s Leechbook’. This one-thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon medical text retained in the British Library includes instructions for brewing a potion to cure an infected eyelash follicle. For Lee and Harrison, carefully following this Old-English recipe to heal an irritating and unsightly stye first involved assembling an exotic miscellany of ingredients: wine, bullock’s gall, cropleek and garlic. Once pounded together and mixed, the resulting slimy composite was then to ‘stand nine days in a brass vessel’.

Close adherence to the prescribed detail was often problematic. An ancient English vineyard of proven heritage supplied a suitable organic wine, but the recipe had to make do with modern strains of garlic and leeks. Likewise, glass bottles containing quantities of brass clipped from a larger sheet served as a low-cost alternative to a brass vessel, with the added advantage that these were also easier to sterilise. Thankfully, cow-bile salts are a modern treatment, being supplied to anyone whose gall bladder has been removed, thus proving a convenient substitute for the bullock’s gall ingredient.

A potent elixir

Brewed for nine days, the potion looked revolting but its smell was more appealing. More importantly, as Harrison observed, the concoction had clearly eradicated all traces of soil bacteria harboured by the garlic and leek ingredients. “It was self-sterilising,” she said. “That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.”

Subsequently, this Anglo-Saxon stye preparation was put to the test against a sample of Staphylococcus aureus. This bacterial strain causes styes, is known to be resistant to methicillin, and frequently appears elsewhere in MRSA, the feared hospital superbug. Trial results demonstrated that the medieval mixture was 90 percent effective against the bacteria, matching the performance of Vancomycin, the modern antibiotic equivalent developed for use against MRSA.

Following earlier failures, researchers have learned that careful, nuanced preparation of the ingredients holds the key to activating the potency of the resultant elixir, and believe the discovery has important implications for the future treatment of antibiotic-resistant skin infections.

The return of the leechLeech

Far from being a forgotten cure, leeches were known and widely used for medicinal bloodletting in many cultures across the ancient world. However, they disappeared from Western medical practice not long after the dawn of the nineteenth century. As a result, the word ‘leech’, which had once been a popular nickname for a doctor, began to acquire more pejorative overtones.

Partly responsible for the abandonment of leeching, French doctor Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis championed the use of statistical analysis to judge the efficacy of a range of medical treatments. His evidence found bleeding to be a generally ineffective means of treating many conditions. In addition, he also suggested that ‘the lancet’ had proved a more useful tool for the procedure than the leech.

Soon all leeching stopped and medical opinion declared that bloodletting did little more than weaken patients. This view condemned leeching as a barbaric and antiquated practice, an assumption which held sway for the next 150 years. It was not until the late twentieth century that medical science re-evaluated the use of leeches, discovering that, in certain strictly defined medical circumstances, this favoured tool of ancient physicians could be very effective indeed.

Acquiring immunityMary Wortley

The standard medical practice of vaccination also first came to the attention of medical science due to the influence of ‘folk cures’. First known as ‘variolation’, this treatment was brought to the UK from Turkey by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu during the early eighteenth century. The wife of Lord Montagu, who was then Britain’s Ambassador to Turkey, Lady Montagu had observed the artificial infection of Turkish children with smallpox. The resultant mild sickness, she noted, usually protected those treated from any future recurrence of the malignant disease. Similar forms of artificial infection against smallpox had been known in Asia and the Middle East for centuries, including the use of a snuff preparation consisting of dried and ground smallpox scab tissue.

The practice of variolation simultaneously spread to the North American colonies where it was equally effective. However, 2012 research examining traditional Native American herbal remedies found an alternative smallpox cure, providing a second line of defence against the future re-emergence of smallpox.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century, Edward Jenner developed a much safer method of acquiring immunity against smallpox. Instead of an artificial dose of smallpox, the process introduced a milder cowpox infection instead. Jenner’s innovation was prompted by the prevailing folk wisdom of the day which observed that those who experienced an early cowpox infection rarely caught the more-dangerous smallpox afterwards.

Research strategies

Evidently, replicating forgotten cures is a remarkably efficient means of advancing medical science. Given the prior existence of folk knowledge and historical texts offering clues, concepts, and factual information worthy of further exploration, can we afford to ignore such a resource?

A parallel concern is the need to also preserve and develop the necessary skills to access and analyse such wisdom. Paleographers will be required to decipher ancient writings, whilst Anglo-Saxon scholars and academics in many other cultural disciplines would be needed to assemble and configure the evidence available.

There are, of course, costs attached to such proposals. However, if we are serious about bioprospecting, should we not seek to protect linguistic expertise in obsolete languages, in the same way that we campaign to preserve our rainforests?[/fusion_text][/one_full][/fullwidth]

World Diabetes Day Featured Image

World Diabetes Day (14th November 2015)

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What is World Diabetes Day?

It has been estimated that by the year 2035, almost 600 million people worldwide could be living with diabetes, and, perhaps even more worryingly, it’s thought that almost half of diabetes cases go undiagnosed today. With 4.9 million deaths attributable annually to diabetes, the disease is a worldwide epidemic. World Diabetes Day, or WDD, was launched in 1991 with the help of the World Health Organisation, and the event became officially recognised by the United Nations in 2006. Continue reading

Chestnuts In Autumn

Could Sweet Chestnut Leaves Hold The Key To Treating MRSA?

[fullwidth background_color=”” background_image=”” background_parallax=”none” enable_mobile=”no” parallax_speed=”0.3″ background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” video_url=”” video_aspect_ratio=”16:9″ video_webm=”” video_mp4=”” video_ogv=”” video_preview_image=”” overlay_color=”” overlay_opacity=”0.5″ video_mute=”yes” video_loop=”yes” fade=”no” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding_top=”20″ padding_bottom=”20″ padding_left=”0″ padding_right=”0″ hundred_percent=”no” equal_height_columns=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” menu_anchor=”” class=”” id=””][one_full last=”yes” spacing=”yes” center_content=”no” hide_on_mobile=”no” background_color=”” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” background_position=”left top” border_size=”0px” border_color=”” border_style=”” padding=”” margin_top=”” margin_bottom=”” animation_type=”” animation_direction=”” animation_speed=”0.1″ class=”” id=””][fusion_text]In recent years, the ability of some bacteria to resist drug therapies has led to rising concern amongst scientists and healthcare professionals, with many blaming the overuse and overreliance on antibiotics – and, in part, the public’s obsession with receiving antibiotic treatment even in situations where it would be largely ineffective.

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