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Health & Wellbeing

Generally, food intake measurement relies on an individual’s ability to recall what and how much they ate, which has inherent limitations. This can be overcome using biomarkers, such as urine, which contains high amounts of data, and looks to be a promising new indicator of nutritional status.

In one study, a group of researchers from Imperial College London, Northwestern University, University of Illinois, and Murdoch University analysed metabolites in the urine to measure the health of an individual’s diet.

Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Health Data Research UK, the group of scientists analysed levels of 46 different metabolites in the urine of 1,848 people in the U.S, publishing their findings in the journal Nature Food.

The team illustrated the effectiveness of using metabolites in urine as an alternative approach to obtaining information on dietary patterns. Analysing the urinary metabolic profile of the individuals, they found that the 46 metabolites in urine accurately predicted healthy / unhealthy patterns, making the link between 46 metabolites in urine, as well as the types of foods and nutrients in the diet.

 urine test sample

Urine test sample 

The team believes that this technology could inspire healthy changes as health professionals could be better equipped to provide dietary advice tailored to their individual biological make-up. As Dr Isabel Garcia-Perez, author of the research also from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction explained: ‘Our technology can provide crucial insights into how foods are processed by individuals in different ways.’

To build on this research, the same Imperial team, in collaboration with Newcastle University, Aberystwyth University, and Murdoch University, developed a five-minute test to measure the health of a person’s diet.

This five-minute test can reveal differences in urinary metabolites, generating a dietary metabotype score for each individual. As part of this research, 19 people were recruited to follow four different diets ranging from very healthy to unhealthy. The experiments indicated that the healthier their diet, the higher the DMS score, associating higher DMS score with lower blood sugar and a higher amount of energy excreted in the urine.

 Healthy heart

Heart in hands

Professor John Mathers, co-author of research and Director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University said: ‘We show here how different people metabolise the same foods in highly individual ways. This has implications for understanding the development of nutrition-related diseases and for more personalised dietary advice to improve public health.’


Health & Wellbeing

The US is in the midst of a healthcare epidemic. Tens of thousands of people are dying each year from opioid drugs, including overdoses from prescription painkillers such as OxiContin (oxycodone) and the illicit street drug heroin, and each year the numbers rise.

The opioid epidemic is currently killing almost twice as many people as shootings or motor vehicle accidents, with overdoses quadrupling since 1999. According to Gary Franklin, medical director of the Washington State Department of Labour and Industries and a professor of health at the University of Washington, the opioid epidemic is ‘the worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history in the US’.

 Montgomery Ohio

Montgomery, Ohio, is at the centre of the epidemic, with the most opioid-related deaths per capita this year. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Incredibly, an influx of synthetic opioids is making the problem worse. Fentanyl, a licensed drug to treat severe pain, is increasingly turning up on the street as illicit fentanyl, often mixed with heroin. According to the NCHS, fentanyl and synthetic opioids are blamed for 20,145 of the 64,070 overdose deaths in 2016. Heroin contributed to 15,446 deaths, while prescription opioids caused 14,427.


Potent opioid

Fentanyl (C22H28N20), a lipophilic phenylpiperidine opioid agonist, is generally formulated as a transdermal patch, lollipop and dissolving tablet. Like the opioids derived from opium poppies, such as morphine, fentanyl binds to opioid receptors in the brain and other organs of the body, specifically the mu-receptor.

 opium poppy

Heroin and other opioids come from the opium poppy.  Image: Max Pixel

Such binding mimics the effects of endogenous opiates (endorphins), creating an analgesic effect, as well as a sense of well-being when the chemical binds to receptors in the rewards region in the brain. Drowsiness and respiratory depression are other effects, which can lead to death from an overdose.


Rise of illicit fentanyl

The opioid epidemic can be traced back to the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies began producing a new range of opioid painkillers, including oxycodone, touting them as less prone to abuse. In addition, prescribing rules were relaxed, while advocates championed the right to freedom from pain. Soon, opioids were being prescribed at alarming rates and increasing numbers of patients were becoming hooked.

 

Why is there an opioid crisis? Video: SciShow

Franklin, who was the first person to report in 2006 on the growing death rate from prescribed opioids, says: ‘OxyContin is only a few atoms different to heroin – I call it pharmaceutical heroin.’

A crackdown on prescribing was inevitable. But then, with a shortage of prescription opioids, addicts turned to illicit – and cheaper – heroin. According to Franklin, 60% of heroin users became addicted via a prescribed opioid. ‘You don’t have to take these drugs for very long before it’s very hard to get off,’ he says: ‘Just days to weeks.’ Heroin use soared and with it increased tolerance, leading users to seek out more potent highs. By 2013, there were almost 2m Americans struggling with an opioid-use disorder.


Drugs to fight drugs

 public health emergency

President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October. Image: Pixabay 

Attention is finally being given to the epidemic. US president Donald Trump recently declared a public health emergency, although no new funds will be assigned to deal with the crisis.

There is particular interest around research into a vaccine against fentanyl. Developed by Kim Janda at The Scripps Research Institute, California, US, the vaccine, which has only been tested in rodents, can protect against six different fentanyl analogues, even at lethal doses. ‘What we see with the epidemic, is the need to find alternatives that can work in conjunction with what is used right now,’ he says.

This vaccine could treat heroin addiction. Video: Seeker

The vaccine works by taking advantage of the body’s immune system to block fentanyl from reaching the brain. Its magic ingredient is a molecule that mimics fentanyl’s core structure, meaning the vaccine trains the immune system to recognise the drug and produce antibodies in its presence. These antibodies bind to fentanyl when someone takes the drug, which stops it from reaching the brain and creating the ‘high’.