Monthly Archives: June 2009

Scarce, common…and flambé!

Well, I followed dear Paul’s suggestion (see his comment on my June 28 post) about getting in touch with a butterfly expert to let the world know about my, er, most exceptional sighting. Yesterday I wrote a message to a U.S. university professor…no names, of course…who was kind enough to inform me that my butterfly was “probably” (now I can safely say: “undoubtedly”!) NOT the zebra swallowtail butterfly but rather a European butterfly known as the “scarce swallowtail butterfly,” also called the “sail swallowtail” or “pear-tree swallowtail.” The expert professor, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, sent me the following link: http://tinyurl.com/mecbbg Yes, that is my butterfly, no question.

 

Latin name: Iphiclides podalirius. In fact, in Italian this butterfly is familiarly named podalirio, see: http://tinyurl.com/lnkxpt (incidentally, I was much amused that in French my butterfly is called “flambé“!). 

 

How odd, though. If this butterfly species, as we can read in the above-mentioned Wikipedia article, is “widespread throughout Europe,” then why on earth was it named “scarce”??? The, uhmmm, common scarce butterfly…hehe. Oh okay, I confess that I did a bit of research…and the reason it is known as “scarce” is because it is indeed a rarity in the UK. Not in the rest of Europe, though…

Well, together with the monarch butterfly, which I was privileged to see many times in my sister’s back yard in Massachusetts, my scarce-common swallowtail is the most gorgeous insect I have ever set my eyes on. (And no, I didn’t see my butterflying friend in my yard yesterday, but I am sure she has gone on to better and safer eating grounds…)

Wow, sometimes things are meant to be…

Yesterday, while hanging out the laundry (by the way, about 20 minutes later, we had a terrific downpour…eh, this happens to me all the time; in fact, if your neighbourhood/town/country is going through a drought, just invite me over to do some laundry…it will rain immediately, and the crops will be saved…), I dropped an item on the lower terrace, which is adjacent to our back garden. As I was going down the terrace stairs to retrieve it, I saw a rather large something fluttering about our enormous lavender plant. I took a closer look…img_0333and there was the most extraordinary butterfly I have ever seen, certainly in Italy. I dashed inside to grab my camera and spent the next 15-20 minutes (or more) alternately taking photographs and standing still to admire this gorgeous insect.

 

But wait a sec. This didn’t look like any of the butterflies that I have seen in Italy. Since I am not a lepidopterologist, though, I had to wait until later to do some research on my butterflying friend. I was lucky. I described her (him?) as a zebra-like butterfly and, sure enough, almost immediately came up with what must be the species: a zebra swallowtail butterfly, or Eurytides marcellus, see: http://tinyurl.com/mwanyu It is also img_0323known as the paw paw butterfly, since the caterpillar likes to feed on young and tender paw paw plants (coincidentally, paw paw is used as an alternative cancer treatment, see http://tinyurl.com/nkfxcg…)…

 

But get this: according to various butterfly websites, my little friend lives exclusively in Northern America, mostly in the eastern United States, north-east Mexico and south-east Canada. I found no mention of sightings anywhere in Europe… So how did this marvellous critter land in my garden? Is this the ONLY sighting of the zebra swallowtail butterfly in all of Europe?

 

img_0299My friend had a slight injury to her left wing but otherwise seemed fine. She certainly drank an enormous amount of nectar from my lavender blooms, using her proboscis, or long flexible tongue (see photos). After taking about a million photographs, I went to call Stefano and my parents. Stefano arrived with his super duper camera and took several photos, too. When it began raining, though, we had to go back into the house.

 

And to think that if I hadn’t dropped something on the lower terrace, I/we would have missed seeing and photographing this lovely creature…as my post title reads, sometimes things are meant to be…

 

Well, I just hope that nothing has happened to her (our neighbourhood is filled with butterfly predators, unfortunately…), and that she will be back in my garden later today. The sun is out today, and I won’t do any laundry…

Herbal tea enhances our natural killer cells

Thanks to Sherlock, I was able to get my hands on a full study recently published in “Phytotherapy Research” concerning the effects of a particular herbal tea on the immune system…specifically, on natural killer (=NK) cell activity. The abstract can be seen here: http://tinyurl.com/lwxylr

 

Just as a reminder, NK cells are important immune system cells whose activity is reduced in multiple myeloma…in fact, this reduction is associated with advanced stages of this cancer as well as increased LDH and B2M. And studies have shown that myeloma patients with higher NK cell activity survive longer than those with lower activity.

 

As we can read in the abstract, the tea consisted of a mix of five herbs that have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine: Withania somnifera, Glycyrrhzia [sic] glabra, Zingiber officinale, Ocimum sanctum and Elettaria cardamomum. Translated into non-Latin terms, the first above-mentioned herb is ashwagandha or Indian ginseng (coincidentally, this is at the top of my to-be-researched list, since, among other things, it is strongly antiangiogenic); the second, correctly spelled Glycyrrhiza glabra, is liquorice; then we have ginger, holy basil and cardamom. (I have posts and pages on liquorice, ginger and holy basil, by the way.)

 

This article discusses two independent double-blind intervention studies—Study I and Study II. Study I included 32 (generally) healthy people between the ages of 55 and 65, selected because of their low NK cell activity and a history of recurrent coughs and colds. Study II: 110 individuals, same age group, also with low NK cell activity. In both studies, roughly half the participants drank the herbal tea mix while the rest, the placebo groups, drank unfortified regular tea. All study participants had to drink three cups of tea/day for at least two months (Study II lasted longer).

 

Compared to the placebo groups, the herbal fortified tea groups showed much more NK cell activity. This is what we know from the abstract. Now for the full study, which is filled with, IMO, fascinating details.

 

The introduction provides us with a general description of NK cells: Natural killer (NK) cells are pivotal in the early innate immune responses against pathogens. […] In addition to their role in tumor cell killing, NK cells are important effectors against certain viruses, parasites and bacteria infected cells. People with diminished NK cell activity suffer from repeated viral and/or bacterial infections.

 

Ah, and read this: The activity of NK cells appears to be relatively sensitive to diet and the intake of specific food components. Okay, that got my full attention. A little bell started ringing in the back of my mind…hadn’t I seen this before? I stopped reading the study and did a quick online search. Sure enough, hah!, curcumin increases NK cell activity. Indeed, it can even activate these cells. Now I know WHY I don’t get infections anymore (as I did in the pre-curcumin period), even though my IgAs and IgMs are practically nonexistent; in fact, my immune system is so weak that my haematologist was surprised that I wasn’t sick all the time…ahhh, good, I like to solve puzzles…next time I see her, I will tell her about curcumin and NK cells, if she doesn’t read it here first, that is…

 

Back to the study now. Tea (both black and green) also apparently enhances NK cell activity. And, in fact, the tea given in the study was black tea fortified with extracts of the above-mentioned five herbs. The placebo groups also received black tea–unfortified, of course.

 

In Study I, after one month, NK cell activity increased a bit, but not significantly, in both groups…but after two months, there was a 60 % increase in the fortified herbal tea group. Remarkable. In Study II, after two months, the fortified herbal tea group had a 4.2 increase in NK cell activity compared to the placebo group that registered only a 2.9 increase. 

 

In the Discussion part we have a description of the various effects of each herbal component of the fortified tea. All of the herbs are immunostimulatory (with the possible exception of cardamom).

 

Then we read that consumption of regular tea was correlated with a time dependent increase in NK cell activity in both studies. Although tea alone has been suggested to influence immune function further evidence from human studies is required before conclusions can be made regarding the association between the consumption of regular black tea and increased NK cell activity, although recent reports suggest that consumption of green tea can increase NK cell activity. So even regular tea, after at least two months, can increase our NK cell activity. Interesting. I am seriously considering becoming a tea drinker now…

 

The study concludes that drinking the herbal fortified tea enhances NK cell activity compared with the consumption of regular tea. So this might be a good way to enhance immune status in subjects with a suboptimal immune function and recurrent episodes of colds and influenza. By the way, the total amount of the five herbs contained in the fortified tea was 4.5%. Not much, when you think about it…yet it was enough to raise NK cell activity. Remarkable.

 

Note: this study made me wonder if a NK cell-enhancing treatment has been considered for, or even tested on, myeloma patients…unfortunately, I don’t have the time to check on that right now…oh well!

 

By the way, one of the many interesting titbits that can be found in this study is that our NK cell activity can actually be measured…I didn’t know that. I wonder what mine is! Hmmm…

Omega-3 study on ES-CLL, MGUS and SMM patients

A blog reader (thanks!) sent me the link (see below) to this Phase II study listed on the Clinical Trials website. The main purpose of the study is to determine if the Omega 3 supplementation will help prevent or delay progression of the disease to a stage that requires treatment. Well, that sounds good to me, especially since my regular regimen includes 4 grams of fish oil/day, which is slightly more than what these patients take in the first month before building to higher doses (the highest dose will be 11 grams and 250 mg/day).

The study is still recruiting, by the way. For more information, see: http://tinyurl.com/n9r49u

Pesticide exposure: risk factor for MGUS

In a recent “Blood” Table of Contents I read that a link has been established between pesticide exposure and MGUS. A team of researchers examined a select group of participants in the Agricultural Health Study, which began back in 1993. They determined that, compared to a control group, these farmers faced twice the risk of developing MGUS. In the study abstract (http://tinyurl.com/mjpcrh) we can read that exposure to pesticides has previously been linked to excess risk of multiple myeloma, albeit inconclusively. Well, you can take a look at the abstract on your own; I will focus only on the full study (grazie mille, Sherlock!)…

 

…from which I will take a few excerpts, such as the following: Although the cause of MGUS and multiple myeloma remain [sic] largely unclear, previous cohort and case-control studies have reported an elevated risk of multiple myeloma among farmers and other agricultural workers. More specifically, pesticides (ie, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) have been hypothesized as the basis for these associations. However, most prior investigations have been hampered by small numbers and limited exposure assessment.

 

The Agricultural Health Study of 57,310 private and commercial licensed applicators of restricted use of pesticides enabled researchers to determine that there was a 1.34-fold […] excess risk of multiple myeloma among pesticide applicators compared with population rates in Iowa and North Carolina.

 

Furthermore, Several pesticides widely used on farms and in homes and gardens by the general public were associated with increased multiple myeloma risk in previous analyses coming from this cohort. Currently, however, it is unclear whether the observed increased risk of multiple myeloma among persons exposed to pesticides might reflect a higher prevalence of MGUS or an increase in the rate of progression from MGUS to multiple myeloma. Unclear or not, this study confirms what we all know or should know: pesticides, insecticides and herbicides are very very VERY bad substances. That is why my entire family eats only organic vegetables…

 

But let’s keep reading. The team of researchers used the Agricultural Health Study to carry out (my emphasis) the first population-based study of MGUS in relation to pesticide exposure in a sample of 678 male pesticide applicators. They discovered that 38 (5.6%) of these workers had MGUS. But read this: nobody under the age of 50 had MGUS…that adds up to a total of 123/678 men. So MGUS was detected only in the older-than-50 group.

 

The team also looked at 50 (!) specific pesticides, of which the worst, in terms of being MGUS risk factors, were: the chlorinated insecticide dieldrin, the fumigant mixture carbon-tetrachloride/carbon disulfide, and the fungicide chlorthalonil. Further on: Our analyses point to possible links with dieldrin, a chlorinated insecticide, which had a significant 5-fold excess risk of MGUS prevalence, and carbon tetrachloride/carbon disulfide mix, a fumigant, which had a significant 4-fold risk of MGUS prevalence. Holy cat! Other potentially dangerous substances are also mentioned…such as Permethrin, a commonly used insecticide that has been linked to multiple myeloma, another insecticide called chlorpyrifos, and two herbicides—atrazine and glyphosate.

 

The researchers conclude that (again, my emphasis) several million Americans use pesticides for which we have found an association with MGUS in the Agricultural Health Study. Some of these same chemicals have been associated with excess multiple myeloma risk. […] Future studies are needed to improve our knowledge on the role of pesticide exposure in the pathogenesis of MGUS, as well as the potential role in progression from MGUS to multiple myeloma.

 

I am almost 100% positive that this is the first study to link MGUS to exposure to commonly used insecticides, herbicides and so on. This bit of news is rather unsettling, to say the least. By the way, if you use any toxic stuff in your garden and would like to have a look at the Table listing the various substances tested (more than 30), drop me a note.

 

After reading this study, I am sooo glad that our garden is completely organic. Sure, we are bothered by weeds, but we don’t use herbicides; we simply do a bit of weeding whenever possible. Weeds are annoying but they can’t kill us. And yes, our garden has been invaded by pests of all sorts, from tiny aphids to big snails, but we have never used insecticides to get rid of them. We either use nothing at all, or, when things get really bad, I make up a spray bottle with natural homemade mixes. True, this way we lose a certain number of raspberries and figs and whatnot, but so be it. I would rather be safe than poisoned!

I do have a confession, though: every spring for the past few years, I have periodically used a Bayer ant spray to keep ants from marching through our house…it releases a sort of smelly foamy poison (I am now too scared to check the active ingredient…!) that is supposed to create an anti-ant barrier for three months. Now, since I have used that insecticide only in recent years, I know it didn’t cause my (former) MGUS. Even so, I am now seriously thinking of taking up Cathy’s suggestion to use corn meal instead! I also just did a quick online search and found heaps of helpful suggestions on natural non-toxic ways to keep ants from becoming too bothersome. I am going to try a few of those…and from this day forward, there will be no more toxic poisons in or around my house!

Link to the Agricultural Health Study: http://aghealth.nci.nih.gov/index.html

Laughing medicine

I haven’t had very much time to do research these past few days, but I did want to post the link to an article about two recent laughter studies, see:  http://tinyurl.com/lye6gw I have already posted about the importance of avoiding stress (because of the connection between stress and myeloma cell proliferation)…but these studies give us a few more good reasons to laugh laugh laugh and…laugh!

347191_f2601And the beneficial effects of laughter are apparently long-lasting–up to 24 hours after watching a funny movie. 24 hours!, wowie. This article has given me an incentive to find and post more funny stuff and build up my funny page section (see right-hand side of my blog, scroll down to Laughter and MM)…

Butein: another anti-myeloma compound

While working on my, er, upcoming STAT3 post (=in draft mode for months now!), I came across an anti-myeloma substance called butein (see: http://tinyurl.com/lu4jny). It is an active extract of Rhus verniciflua Stokes (and of other plants as well, such as the stem-bark of cashew trees), a medicinal plant that has been used for ages in Asian countries to treat pain, thrombosis, gastritis, stomach cancer and parasitic infections. I also read that it is used as a food additive in Korea, which would seem to guarantee its non-toxicity…

 

In recent years, butein has been found to have anti-proliferative effects on a number of cancer cells, including breast cancer, colon cancer, osteosarcoma, lymphoma, acute myelogenous leukemia, melanoma and hepatic satellite cells. I also found a study on bladder cancer cells showing that butein inhibits the activation of NF-kappaB as well as halting metastasis. (I can provide links to all these studies upon request.)

 

A 2007 MD Anderson study (see: http://tinyurl.com/n5yx9k; click on “manual download” if the automatic one doesn’t work) proves that Butein inhibited the constitutive NF-kB activation in MM cells. These results indicate that butein can suppress not only inducible but also constitutively active NF-kB in tumor cells. (The more I read, the more I like this stuff…)

 

The myeloma-butein study (grazie, Sherlock!) that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was published in “Molecular Pharmacology” in 2009. MD Anderson researchers found that butein inhibited both constitutive and interleukin-6-inducible STAT3 activation in multiple myeloma (MM) cells. Without (yet) going into details about the STAT3 signaling pathway, let me just mention that its inhibition is good news for us.

 

More titbits: butein also inhibits the wicked members of the Bcl family, cyclin D1 and Mcl-1…all of this led to the suppression of proliferation and induction of apoptosis. And also: butein significantly potentiated the apoptotic effects of thalidomide and Velcade in MM cells. In fact, according to these researchers, butein may have the power to reverse chemoresistance in myeloma cells.

 

Because of time constraints, I must jump directly to the results and discussion parts. Note: the researchers tested butein also on prostate cancer and head and neck cancer cells. They found that butein inhibits the activation of STAT3 in these cancer cells as well…both constitutive and inducible STAT3 activation (by the way, the inducible type, which can be caused by icky nasty IL-6, was suppressed 100% by butein in lab tests!).

 

Then we have a long list of butein’s anti-myeloma properties. Impressive, but I decided against posting all these various activities, since that would make my post look like an incredibly lengthy laundry list. Here, though, is an important excerpt: butein significantly enhanced the apoptotic effects of Velcade from 20 to 70% and of thalidomide from 5 to 55%. Well, well…

 

At the end of the study, the researchers argue that the pharmacological safety of butein and its ability to down-regulate the expression of several genes involved in cell survival and chemoresistance and potentiate the effect of Velcade and thalidomide provide a sufficient rationale to further carry out preclinical studies preceding human trials.

 

Hear hear!

Compound du jour…

Interesting article about resveratrol in a recent Science Daily: http://tinyurl.com/kjzfao

This bit, toward the end, caught my attention…not because of the rather poor phrasing (hehe) but for the content: Resveratrol is largely inactivated by the gut or liver before it reaches the blood stream, where it exerts its effects – whatever they may be – good, bad, or indifferent. Thus, most of the reseveratrol [sic] in imbibed red wine does not reach the circulation. Interestingly, absorption via the mucous membanes [sic] in the mouth can result in up to around 100 times the blood levels, if done slowly rather than simply gulping it down.

Of course, when you really think about it…if drinking red wine improves health, then the above paragraph makes little sense. Resveratrol must be absorbed at some level other than the bloodstream, don’t you think? Well, in any event, it can’t hurt to drink wine slowly, savoring it and swishing it around in the mouth like sommeliers do…

Nothing school

My funniest student, whom I have nicknamed “colleague C” here on the blog, was in a comical mood this morning. We chatted a bit, then began some grammar exercises, one of which required her to put “a, the, or nothing” into each gap. The first sentence in the exercise was: “I come to _____ school by _____ bus.”

She began filling in the blanks: “I come to the school…” Then she paused, peeking up at me. My slight frown indicated that “the” was not the correct answer. So she said “no, I come to a school…,” and again glanced at me. Another frown.

Well, there was only one possible answer left, so she came up with the following gem: “I come to nothing school…” :-)