Dangers of Fear and Neglect


Maryn McKenna is a science journalist over at Wired with the blog Superbug.  I’ve been following her for a while and really enjoy her writing. Perhaps because she has a strong focus on the dangers of antibiotics usage in meat production, a topic I am very interested in and concerned about.  She also writes a lot about disease outbreaks including many posts on the current Ebola outbreak. (I’ve written about Ebola here).  Her most recent one regarding this virus is an interview with experts in the field of risk-communication. Regarding the quarantine of a nurse recently returned to the U.S. from caring for Ebola patients, she asks the question:

“What happens if this kind of punitive detention — which went far beyond what medical authorities recommend — deters aid workers from going to West Africa to help?”

Take a look here to read about the very concerning events that could take place if Ebola is not controlled at its source with help from nations around the world.


Fighting to cure ALS

The Chicago Tribune just published an article about a group at Northwestern studying ALS.  The brilliant scientist shown below has lead a group in finding a possible cause of ALS (discussed earlier on this blog here)!  It’s been known for a while that, in patients with this disease, nerve cells have a problem with getting rid of proteins that are damaged or are made incorrectly.  Dr. Siddique found that, at least in a subset of patients who have the hereditary version of the disease, the protein ubiquilin 2 is not able to perform its function of getting rid of these proteins.  This basically leads to a hoarding situation for the cell where “trash” piles up to such an extent within the cell that it can no longer function.  This is an exciting breakthrough and will hopefully help scientists to discover a cure for ALS.

Breakthrough for ALS!

The original research article was published in Nature and can be found here.

Move it, move it

Have you ever been in a raging bad mood, snapping at friends for no reason, hating the world? Maybe all of that pent up energy eventually motivated you to get out of your toxic mind and into the gym or out for a run?  And then, poof!  Your mood has been reset, you’re calmer, your anger has dissipated.  There’s a plethora of reasons why staying physically active is beneficial, and it just so happens that tempering the immune system can be added to the list.

As with lots of things however, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  The effects of exercise on the immune system can be pictured as an upside down “J” as seen in the figure below.


Exercise and immune function http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20569522

Too little or too much and immune function is poor.  Like Goldilocks, you need just the right amount for optimum immune function. I myself try to stay pretty active with volleyball, yoga, biking to work sometimes, hiking, and walking my dog.  But you’ll never see me training for a marathon because I want my immune system to be at its best.  (That’s not true at all.  I hate running and the thought of 26.2 miles screams Hell to me, and I don’t think the human body was made for such insane distances!  And apparently my method isn’t fail-safe as I’m fighting a cold while writing this!)

The overall view is that the positive effect of exercise on your immune system is to keep inflammation under control.  Inflammation is the root cause of a lot of diseases including cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, various cancers, dementia, and even depression.  In this post, I’ll talk about a few of the ways exercise turns down the immune system’s anger (inflammation) including decreasing fatty tissue, stimulating muscle cells to make anti-inflammatory molecules, and preventing infiltration of macrophages (those important cells in the innate immune system named, ironically in this case, for their “big eating” habit).

Not this


Fatty tissue and inflammation

Of course the main motivating factor behind all of us exercising is to trim down and burn away some of that fat.  I always know when my pants start filling out a bit too much that it’s time for some yoga.  It turns out though that growing waist bands (even more so than growing bums or legs or arms) are not just bad for our vanity but also for the immune system.  That’s because the fat tissue, also called adipose tissue, causes chronic, low level inflammation.  This comes in the form of chemical messengers called cytokines whose slow, steady release into the bloodstream can be damaging to tissue and cause the immune system to get all fired up.  It’s like that low level annoyance that you have towards a coworker that initially is no big deal but its continued presence leads to an explosion….or in this case the development of Type 2 Diabetes or cardiovascular disease.  So battling the bulge is good for the health in part because it prevents the accumulation of fat cells that can cause systemic inflammation.

Muscles and anti-inflammatory messages

While lack of exercise causes the accumulation of pro-inflammatory adipose tissue, engaging in physical activity promotes the opposite of that or an anti-inflammatory state.  Even after short periods of moderate exercise, muscles (not tissue we normally think of as having an immune role) start to produce signals that can calm down the immune cells.  This comes in the form of a cytokine or message called IL-6 which is released quickly after a workout and then starts a cascade of production of other anti-inflammatory signals.

In obese patients, the fatty tissue has lots of macrophages that can instigate an inflammatory state.  Physical activity can prevent these cells from infiltrating into the fatty tissue.  One way this might occur is through decreased production of the docking site for macrophages.  For immune cells to go from traveling through the bloodstream at high speeds to entering a tissue they need to go through several steps that slow the cells down.  Exercise can interrupt this process and therefore block inflammatory macrophages from entering fat tissue.

Too much exercise!

So it seems like exercise decreases inflammation but of course inflammation has its purposes, particularly in protecting us from infection.  So does that mean exercise makes us more susceptible to infections?  It turns out that elite athletes oftentimes get more upper respiratory tract infections especially after intense training.   Within our salivary glands are lots of antibodies (called soluble IgA) that are the first barrier that prevent infections from occurring.  These antibodies act like bouncers at a bar; they bind to viruses and bacteria entering through our airways and stop them from getting into our bodies.  Intense workouts in elite athletes have decreased levels of these antibodies and are therefore more susceptible to respiratory infections. Their susceptibility may also be affected by the anti-inflammatory state created by intense workouts.

Moderate exercise therefore has an overall positive effect on our immune systems. It prevents the accumulation of pro-inflammatory fat cells and promotes muscle cells to create an overall anti-inflammatory environment.  These are pretty cool examples of non immune cells (fat and muscle) playing a role in our immune system.  The importance of the immune system is demonstrated here, where exercise influences inflammation and inflammation influences the progression to disease.  Happy workouts lead to happy immune systems!

These articles were used for this post: here, here, here, and especially here.

An interview with myself

Somehow I couldn’t get the New York Times to interview me for the exciting release of my new blog. So I decided to do it myself….bear with me.

Jessica (Interviewer): So what made you want to do a blog?

Jessica (Responder):   I really enjoy doing research and I love Immunology.  Being in the lab is great, but I also get a lot of satisfaction out of either writing about it or discussing it with people who aren’t exactly in my field. Those opportunities to effectively communicate what I know with others are times I feel accomplished and useful! I have also considered teaching as a career. And writing about the immune system on a weekly basis will help me to think up new ways to relate this complex system to students.

Jessica (I): So are students your target audience?

Jessica (R): Well I do hope that students read this blog and find it useful in understanding what they are learning. But I hope that the general public will also read.

Jessica (I): Why would the general public even care about the immune system?

Jessica (R): It’s such a cool system!!! There is so much going on with the immune system: different types of cells, ways they communicate, ways they get from one place to another, all of the foreign pathogens (those are things like viruses and bacteria and parasites) that it needs to protect us from. It has such a tough role of making sure to protect us from those pathogens but also protecting us from bad things that happen in our own bodies that aren’t foreign (think cancer).   And if that wasn’t enough the immune system also need to recognize our own healthy tissue as safe and not something to be attacked.   The immune system is kind of omnipresent….thus the blog’s name: Omnimmune.   From the food we eat, to different diseases like diabetes and multiple sclerosis, to trauma, to heart attacks…the immune system is effecting all of those things. And that’s the point of this blog. To explore the immune system in all of these different processes.

Jessica (I): So the point is to explore the immune system in diseases? What else will readers learn from your blog?

Jessica (R): I’m planning on going off of what is in the news at the time. So Ebola is big in the news and that will be my first post. Describing what the immune system is doing during this infection and why it oftentimes can’t control it. ALS is in the news a lot too. That’s not really a disease that is associated with or caused by the immune system. But it’s there, and it’s definitely having an impact on those that have the disease. Immunology (the study of the immune system) is dense in the lingo so you’ll also find a page called “So much immuno lingo”. This will help readers to follow along if I start using jargon. I hope that there will be a wide spectrum of readers with different backgrounds in the sciences. So I will target the main post to readers without any biology background and have links to expand on ideas for those who are interested.

Jessica (I): Why should people trust you?

Jessica (R): Great question. I’ve had about ten years of training in Immunology and received my PhD in 2010 from the University of Rochester. A lot of the topics that I’ll be writing about aren’t exactly in my area of expertise. But I have the knowledge base to research them on my own and report back. Hopefully in a manner that will be easy for the reader to understand and relate to and fun at the same time.

Jessica (I): Do you have a life outside of science?

Jessica (R): Luckily yes….I mean it’s not the most exciting life in the world but it makes me happy! I’ve got a good base of friends here in St. Louis (and worldwide!!) that keep me busy. We’re just finishing up a beautiful summer and the weather was perfect for lots of outdoor concerts and movies in the park. I play volleyball once a week which has been really fun to get back into…thank you Maria! I do lots of yoga…mostly for the health benefits but it does relax me as well. I love reading fiction….I wish I was more of a nonfiction reader but they just don’t grab my attention all that often. I like to knit, and go to concerts, and travel (anyone wanna take me to Cambodia…or I’ll settle for the Caribbean?). I’m obviously a bit of a nerd as evidenced by the format of this first post and the blog topic in general. But I’ve embraced my nerdiness and you should embrace yours too! I have loved living in St. Louis after about 12 years away. My parents live here and my sister and her family are nearby. Great to be back by two crazy nieces and a nephew and watch them grow! And fun to explore a city that I grew up in with new adult eyes! Oh and I have a really fun dog named Huckleberry who is quite neurotic but oh so lovable!

Jessica (I): Anything else we should know?

Jessica (R): I think that’s about it for the blog. Check in weekly to look for new posts. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear suggestions for things I should write about!

Neurotic dog, Huckleberry