Cigars Are No Better

May 15, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

Person smoking a cigarette

A common argument made by those who smoke cigars is that they are safer than cigarettes.  However, several studies argue that this is not true.

Cigar smoking has increased dramatically in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2011, small cigar sales rose 65 percent and large cigar sales increased 233 percent. Americans smoked more than 13 million cigars in 2010, twice the number from 2000. About 13.4 million people age 12 or older smoke cigars. A cigar culture has arisen, with cigar bars or clubs, shops with walk-in humidors, and magazines for those who consider themselves cigar connoisseurs. Their use among sports figures and celebrities has made them seem fashionable or sophisticated, a symbol of status or success.

The tobacco in cigars is cured and fermented to enhance the flavor, but this process also increases the amounts of harmful ingredients. Cigars come in three basic sizes, but the classic cigars are the large ones that contain more than half an ounce of tobacco, and some contain as much as an entire pack of cigarettes.

Just like cigarettes, cigars contain nicotine and can be very addictive. Most people who smoke cigars do not inhale, and therefore the nicotine is absorbed more slowly. However, cigar smoke dissolves more easily in saliva than cigarette smoke, enhancing the amount of nicotine absorbed.  Smokers absorb one to two milligrams of nicotine out of the eight total milligrams in cigarettes. The large cigars contain anywhere from 100 to over 400 milligrams of nicotine, and the amount a person absorbs varies greatly depending on how long the cigar is smoked, how many puffs are taken, and how much smoke is inhaled. Second- and third-hand cigar smoke is dangerous, just like it is with cigarettes.

In one study, scientists measured the levels of two biomarkers for tobacco as well as arsenic and lead in over 25,000 cigar smokers. Cigar smokers had higher levels of these carcinogens than nonsmokers and equal levels to cigarette smokers. Overall, the study found that cigars are not safer than cigarettes. Cigar smokers are less likely to develop lung cancer than cigarette smokers, but they are at higher risks of developing other cancers.

Those who inhale while smoking cigars are more likely to develop laryngeal cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer, pancreatic cancer, and cancers of the tongue, mouth, or throat than nonsmokers. Even those who don’t inhale the smoke directly still inhale the secondhand smoke and are at an increased risk of lung cancer. Cigar smokers are four to 10 times more likely to die from cancers of the mouth, larynx, and esophagus than nonsmokers.

Cigar smoking also increases the risk of other diseases including emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart attacks, gum disease, and erectile dysfunction. One long-term study determined that cigar or pipe smoking costs people 10 years on average – they spent an extra five years in bad health and died five years earlier.

So before you take up cigars in an attempt to look cool, ask yourself if your image is more important than your health.

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The Teen Brain on Weed

April 24, 2015

By Medical Discovery News

A brain

It is now legal to use marijuana (recreationally and/or medically) in more than 20 states and the District of Columbia, and as more places debate legalizing the substance, more people are asking about its consequences on human health. There are many myths and misconceptions out there, but this is what science has to say about the subject.

As with all substances, the health effects depend on the potency, amount, and a person’s age. An independent scientific committee in the United Kingdom evaluated how harmful various drugs were based on 16 criteria and ranked heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine as the most harmful drugs to individuals using them, and ranked alcohol, heroin, and crack cocaine as the drugs that cause the most harm to others. Marijuana ranks eighth, with slightly more than one-quarter the harm of alcohol.

Short-term use is associated with impaired short-term memory, making it difficult to learn and retain information while under the influence. Short-term use can also impair motor coordination, interfering with tasks such as driving. The overall risk of an accident doubles if a person drives soon after using marijuana. In comparison, those with blood alcohol levels above the legal limit are five times more likely to have an accident, and the combination of alcohol and marijuana is higher than either one alone.

Long-term or heavy use is associated with diminished life satisfaction and achievement overall. At high doses, marijuana can cause paranoia and psychosis, and long-term marijuana use increases the risk of developing schizophrenia or other chronic psychotic illnesses. Nine percent of all marijuana users, or 2.7 million people, develop an addiction to it. That figure jumps to 25-50 percent for those who use marijuana daily, and 17 percent of people who begin using marijuana as adolescents become addicted. Cannabis withdrawal syndrome is real and includes symptoms of irritability, sleep disturbance, dysphoria, craving, and anxiety.

Adults who occasionally use marijuana do so with little to no risk, but adolescent brains are not fully developed, making them more vulnerable to the adverse effects of marijuana. Using marijuana during adolescence can alter brain development, causing impaired cognition and lower IQs. This is probably because the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, affects the brain’s ability to make connections between neurons in certain regions of the brain. Adolescent marijuana users also have a smaller hippocampus, which is important in learning and memory, and a less active prefrontal cortex, which is important in cognitive tasks such as planning and problem-solving.

Since acute marijuana intoxication can impair cognitive functions for days, students who use marijuana may function well below their natural abilities, causing academic difficulties. High school dropouts do report higher marijuana usage than their peers. Some evidence suggests that these cognitive impairments could be long-lasting or permanent in long-term users who started at younger ages, which can impact their abilities to succeed academically and professionally.

There is no clear association between long-term marijuana use and any deadly disease, although chronic marijuana smokers have increased rates of respiratory infections and pneumonia and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The effects of marijuana on a developing embryo and the effects of second-hand or third-hand marijuana smoke have not been well-studied, but as marijuana legalization continues to be an issue the science behind it will as well.

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I Spy for Heart Disease

Aug. 29, 2014

By Medical Discovery News

Heart in chest

While a shrink ray like the kind used in science fiction is still stuck in the future, miniature devices are not. Tiny devices have been created to perform a variety of tasks, from an implantable telescope to improve vision in those with macular degeneration to the new pacemaker in clinical trials that is about the size of a large vitamin pill. Now, researchers have developed a catheter-based device smaller than the head of a pin that can provide real-time 3D images of the heart, coronary arteries, and other blood vessels. This is an important invention as the casualties of heart disease continue to rise. Statistically, one in four people will have a heart attack. 

Many Americans are at risk for developing coronary artery disease (CAD) due to the buildup of cholesterol and plaque. If there is a rupture or breakage of the plaque, creating a blood clot, that can result in a heart attack with little to no warning. Traditional diagnostic tests such as stress tests and echocardiograms show how much blood is flowing to the heart. If there are regions of the heart that are not getting as much blood as others, it might be a sign of clogged coronary arteries. However, blood flow can also appear to be normal even with plaque buildup.

Currently, there are a variety of methods that provide images of what is going on inside arteries, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), multi-detector Computerized Tomography (CT) scans, and injecting an iodine-based contrast agent into arteries through a catheter. But all these look at the inside of the body from the outside, which is why this new device gives an unprecedented way of viewing the heart.

This invention combines ultrasound imaging with computer processors on a single chip only 1.4 millimeters wide. The body’s signals are processed on the chip then transmitted through 13 tiny cables to a computer monitor, so doctors have a visual of the heart and arteries. The prototype took 60 images per second using very little power, therefore generating little heat. This would allow cardiologists to take real-time images of blood vessels in and around the heart to more precisely determine the extent of blockages. These images also have much higher resolution compared to those taken with machines outside the body.

The next step is to conduct studies using the device on animals to determine its safety and efficacy and to develop potential applications of this technology. Eventually, this data will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to gain permission to perform clinical trials on humans. Extensive testing will be required before the FDA will approve the device for general use. The developers, a group of engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, are also working to shrink the device even further to .4 millimeters so it can generate images of even smaller blood vessels.

Having clearer images of blood vessels would allow surgeons to have a more complete understanding of the blockage they are dealing with before they operate. Hopefully, in the future use of this device will prevent heart attacks and save many people’s lives.

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An Aspirin A Day

March 29, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

New research shows that aspirin truly deserves its nickname as the wonder drug, since now it even helps fight cancer. It’s naturally found in willow bark, which has been used as herbal medicine for thousands of years. People have been taking aspirin in its current for over 100 years.

Ancient Greeks used ground willow bark to treat fevers and control pain during in childbirth. Then, in the early 1800s, English physicians and scientists wanting to discover the key to willow bark’s effect isolated its active component, salicin. In 1890 a German chemist named Friedrich Bayer (sound familiar?) created a synthetic salicin molecule called acetylsalicylic acid. This derivative was less irritating to the stomach than willow bark and became the modern form that lines drugstore shelves. 

Since then, researchers have been finding even more medical uses for aspirin. In the 1960s, scientists began exploring aspirin’s ability to thin blood and tested its usefulness in preventing heart disease. To summarize many extensive clinical trials, it is now generally believed that taking low-dose aspirin on a daily basis helps reduce the chances of a second heart attack (but not the first) in men. But these studies also revealed some negative side effects of regular aspirin use, including bleeding ulcers and hemorrhaging retinas. 

Recent studies may have uncovered another, quite wonderful, effect of aspirin – reducing the risk of some common cancers. Initial studies found the occurrence of colorectal cancer was lower in those who took aspirin regularly. These studies followed individuals who took aspirin for its cardiovascular benefits, but also ended up decreasing their risk of developing certain tumors by almost 40 percent. And low-dose aspirin also appeared to reduce the spread of tumors in people with established cancer.

In a 2010 British study, those taking daily aspirin for at least five years reduced their risk of dying from colorectal, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, brain, lung, and prostate cancers by more than 20 percent. These studies also cited issues of bleeding in the stomach and retinas, especially in older individuals. New guidelines for aspirin therapy suggest starting an aspirin regime at age 50 and stopping by age 70 in order to reduce this risk.

Several properties of aspirin might explain its cancer-fighting abilities. Aspirin inhibits enzymes called cyclooxygenases or COX, which normally convert a type of fatty acid into compounds that protect the stomach lining. This may be why aspirin can lead to stomach irritation, but may also explain why aspirin works well as an anti-inflammatory, since COX can contribute to inflammation. And preventing inflammation also prevents the growth of tumor cells.

Given its ability to combat the nation’s two most serious killers, the potential for expanding low-dose aspirin therapy looks positive. Overall, these results have scientists on the verge of declaring aspirin the first “general anticancer drug.” Of course, individuals should consult their physician before starting any drug regime. 

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Foxglove and High Blood Pressure

By Medical Discovery News

Sept. 8, 2012


Few pharmaceutical companies extract drugs from plants anymore, but a medication commonly prescribed for heart attack patients continues to come from the colorful flower foxglove. In addition, the plant may possess another life saving quality – the ability to lower blood pressure.

Foxglove, or Digitalis lantana and Digitalis purpurea, are historically important plants. The family of tall spires blooming with mostly purple flowers now has species growing all over the world, particularly along roadsides and in gardens in America. Herbalists, healers, and physicians in Ireland and Wales called it feverfew as far back as the 13th century. They used it with wine as an expectorant and an antiseptic. Native Americans brewed tea from its dried leaves to treat leg swelling caused by heart problems. In 1650, Foxglove was included in the “London Pharmacopoeia,” and then used by New England colonists by the mid-1700s.

Today, Foxglove leaves are used to make digoxin, which is commonly prescribed to treat congestive heart failure or atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. The drug increases the force of the heart’s contraction and slows its electrical impulses to regulate the rhythm.

Scientists have discovered digoxin could also treat high blood pressure.  Researchers from the University of Michigan learned a protein, RGS2, works protectively in the body to keep blood pressure in check. They found that low levels of this protein correlate with high blood pressure.

They also theorized if they could increase the body’s RGS2 levels, blood pressure would drop. Hoping an RGS2-boosting drug already existed, the team began testing thousands of medications. Not only did digoxin raise these protein levels in lab-grown cells, but it did so in mice by two to three times. Digoxin seems to work by slowing the normal degradation of the protein.

Studies on the mice showed that after seven days of being on digoxin, RGS2 levels increased in both heart and kidney tissues compared with mice not given the drug. Further tests are needed to prove that using digoxin to raise these protein levels does indeed lower blood pressure in humans. It’s also important to study long-term use of the drug.

Digoxin can be quite toxic. Since the body can’t process it quickly, the drug can build up and cause serious health problems. Symptoms of foxglove poisoning are pain in the mouth or throat followed by vomiting, diarrhea, severe headache, and irregular pulse, breathing, and heartbeat. A severe poisoning can cause convulsions and death.

Millions of Americans could benefit if further testing shows digoxin does lower blood pressure. One third of Americans lives with high blood pressure, also called hypertension. Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. Blood pressure that’s too high leads to coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and many other health issues.

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Keep Your Dark Chocolate Addiction

By Medical Discovery News

Aug. 18, 2012

Cocoa pods

Though word has spread that eating dark chocolate is good for the heart, a new report offers suggestions on just how much a person should eat. Using mathematical modeling, the study indicates 3.5 ounces or 100 grams of dark chocolate a day reduces the odds of heart attacks and strokes in people at high risk. That’s a medium-sized bar containing a minimum of 70 percent cocoa.

Researchers from Monash University in Australia predict eating this amount of chocolate daily over a 10-year period would prevent 70 nonfatal and 15 fatal cardiovascular events per 10,000 people. Their study, published in the “British Medical Journal,” reaffirms dark chocolate’s ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, which can be attributed to flavonoids found in high amounts in cacao beans.

Don’t be confused by the term cacao since that’s the original name of the bean, which comes from the Theobroma cacao tree. Over time, cacao became anglicized and began to be replaced with the term cocoa. The terms are interchangeable, yet the beans are technically cacao beans and the processed powder and butter derived from the beans are called cocoa.

Processed cocoa products do not contain the heart healthy flavonoids found in raw cacao beans. Unprocessed cacao has a strong, pungent taste that when fermented and alkalized loses more and more flavonoids with each step. Most of the heavily processed cocoa products also contain high amounts of unhealthy fats and sugars, so it’s important to look for chocolate devoid of these ingredients and with at least 70 percent cocoa.

Eating a chocolate bar each day is probably not realistic, which is fine since many other foods also contain flavonoids, such as many fruits and vegetables and certain beverages including tea, coffee, beer, and wine. Over 4,000 flavonoids are known and some studies suggest this antioxidant has antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties.

During normal cellular activity, cells produce or are exposed to what are called reactive oxygen species, a type of free radical. A radical is an atom or group of atoms that have one or more unpaired electrons. Even though they’re formed as a necessary component in a variety of normal biochemical reactions, in excess, they damage cells, especially molecules in them that carry genetic information. Oxidant damage has been linked to cancer, aging, cardiovascular disease, ischemic injury, inflammation, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

According to the Monash study, choosing to consume quality dark chocolate in combination with exercise and other healthy foods can help someone at high risk possibly avoid a heart attack or stroke.  Researchers calculated that investing just $42 per person per year on dark chocolate related health strategies including advertising and promotion can significantly reduce a population’s cardiovascular risks. The findings could be valuable to a country such as Australia where 30 percent of its population are at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

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Heart Heal Thyself

By Medical Discovery News

Nov. 26, 2011

Heart Heal Thyself

The vast majority of human cells regenerate: skin, stomach lining, red blood cells, bone cells, liver cells and the list goes on. But certain cells either do not regenerate at all, or take years to do so. Among these cells is a heart muscle cell called cardiomyocyte.

Starting at birth, these cells regenerate at just one percent a year, and by the time of death only half of the original heart muscle cells are replaced. That’s why damage from a heart attack is considered permanent. Within minutes, depending on where the blockage occurred, cardiomyocytes are either damaged or dead from a lack of oxygen-rich blood. The heart begins to produce replacement cells, but not fast enough. So, instead of new muscle cells, scar tissue forms, compromising the heart’s ability to pump blood. The amount of lost pumping ability depends on the size and location of the scar.

Scientists have spent years looking for a way to stop, slow or heal this damage, and they’re making headway. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas are focused on a small protein called Thymosin beta-4, or TB4. When the heart develops inside a human embryo, TB4 is made. This protein encourages the growth of cardiomyocytes, and stimulates the growth of blood vessels. Could this protein be used somehow to heal a damaged heart? Research with mice show this may be a promising new therapy.

Scientists have known the outer layer of the heart holds heart progenitor stem cells from which new cardiac cells are produced. They’re called epicardium-derived progenitor cells or EDPCs . These cells are usually dormant, but the UT researchers found when they injected the mice with TB4 it gave EDPCs a jump start. Within 24 hours, TB4 not only began to reduce the number of cardiomyocytes killed during a heart attack, but it also stimulated dormant progenitor cells to regenerate those that did die, reducing scar formation.

Over the long term, the mice also showed new blood vessel formation in the heart, bypassing blocked vessels. The hope is TB4 will prove to be just as effective in larger mammals and eventually, humans. Ideally, high risk patients would be treated prior to developing a heart attack as a preventative to prime the heart for repair, and possibly to treat the heart after an attack as well.

TB4 is already in clinical trials, and studies are also in progress to find molecules with the same but even more potent and specific effects.  The goal among researchers is to provide TB4 or a drug with similar effects to the public in 10 years. In America alone, one million people suffer heart attacks every year and that number is only expected to grow.

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