By VIRGINIA WINDER
HOW the worm turns – or in this case leeches.
The reviled creature is having a revival in the medical world, after being ousted by antibiotics in the first half of last century.
Now they are back and science is leeching from the leeches.
Research has isolated at least 115 bioactive ingredients from the leech, Hirudo medicinalis, and its almost identical cousin H. verbena. There’s been a mix up in the lab as to which is which and it turns out scientists in some parts of the world, including the United States, may have been testing H. verbena, when they thought it was the other species.
Just who’s who in the leech world, doesn’t stop the slimy creature from offering hope and healing for people everywhere.
Today, leeches are being used directly for pain relief; to help stimulate blood flow when limbs have been reattached; and have been tested as a treatment for patients with lower leg ulcers caused by varicose veins.
Scientists have also extracted hirudin, a peptide or protein found in the salivary glands of the medicinal leech. This is a powerful anticoagulant or blood thinner, which stops or breaks down clotting.
It saved an American man’s life last month.
Daryl Vinson’s heart was only working at 10%, and the Los Angeles man’s future looked grim unless he had a new organ. A donor was found, but doctors faced a major hurdle.
The former air traffic controller was allergic to the mainstream blood thinner heparin, an important drug needed in transplant surgery.
In a do-or-die move, the transplant team from Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in LA created a substitute anticoagulant using a synthetic form of the leech saliva protein. The resulting drug, bivalirudin, was used, successfully, and Vinson got his new heart in an uncomplicated three-hour operation on July 25.
Leeches have also been used to help save a Nelson fisherman’s fingers. The man had four fingers of his right hand amputated during an accident on board a trawler at Farewell Spit on July 8.
He was flown to Hutt Hospital where plastic surgeons Chris Adams and Charles Davis reattached three of his fingers. They couldn’t save his little finger because it was too badly crushed.
To help with the recovery, one leech after another was put on the end of the man’s ring finger to improve blood flow.
Following surgery there can be a problem with circulation, which prevent sufficient blood and nutrients getting to the reattached body part. But a leech can fix that problem by sucking out dead blood cells and secreting its saliva, containing anti-clotting properties.
The leeches are grown in laboratories so they are considered to be medically clean.
Doctors may look at employing them for treating ulcers, because a study in India has shown great success in treating these long-lasting wounds.
The study, documented in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, looked at 20 men with a mean age of 43 years, who had varying degrees of inflammation and swelling caused by venous ulcers. These are wounds caused by improper functioning of valves in the veins of the lower legs.
None of the patients had diabetes, anaemia or any other illness.
The men had between one and four leeches placed around the ulcer area during a session. The number of applications of leeches varied from 2 to 20, depending on the severity of the wound and the oedema (swelling).
Results from the study were startling.
“Leech therapy effectively decreased oedema and limb girth in 95% of patients, decreased hyperpigmentation (tissue darkened by inflammation) in 75% of patients and resulted in ulcer healing in all the patients, probably by the sucking up of venous blood leading to venous decongestion,” the doctors reported.
And people suffering from arthritis pain can also take heed.
A team of German doctors from the Essen-Mite Clinic in Essen conducted a pilot study involving 16 osteoarthritis patients, who had knee pain for more than six months.
As well as adding exercise, physiotherapy, relaxation therapy and dietary changes to their treatment regime, 10 of the subjects received leech treatment for the pain.
This involved placing four medicinal leeches on the inflamed knee and leaving them for 80 minutes. The other six patients were given conventional pain treatment.
The researchers recorded pain levels three days prior to starting pain treatment and 28 days after treatment had finished.
Once again, the outcome was nothing short of miraculous.
Not only did the leech therapy give the sufferers significant pain relief within 24 hours – it lasted for four weeks without side effects or infections.
In contrast, those who received conventional drug treatment reported no relief from pain.
The German researchers explained that the relief was due to the anaesthetic properties of that sensational saliva, with might contain morphine-like substance and anti-inflammatory enzymes able to penetrate deep into the joints.
Meanwhile, the Beth Israel Medical Centre in New York has begun offering leech therapy to patients with osteoarthritis in their knees.
Sometimes humans are slow learners – or simply think everything from the past is passed its use-by date.
Leeches, you see were first used for medicinal purposes back in 2000BC.
It’s heartening to see we’re finally catching on.
Monday, 27 August 2007
By VIRGINIA WINDER
1) A leech should never be pulled off because they can leave teeth or other mouthparts behind that can become infected. Lemon juice, vinegar, fire (not recommended), salt and even tiger balm can be used make a leech let go. Or you can just wait until they have had their fill and drop off.
2) You won’t feel any pain if a leech latches on to you. This bloodsucker has built-in anaesthesia, so when its three mouths and 300 razor-sharp teeth sink into your flesh, you’ll be none the wiser.
3) In one suck session, a leech can draw off six times its body weight in blood. While this may sound greedy, the blubbery creature won’t need to feed for another six months – or more.
4) Back in the 1800s, aquatic leeches were used as weather forecasters. When this type of leech finds itself in water with low oxygen counts, it floats towards the surface. So old-time weather watchers would place a leech in a glass of water and if there was a fall in atmospheric pressure, the critter would rise, predicting bad weather.
5) Leeches may be used to help humans, but they aren’t all good news – especially if you’re smallish and fury. Four to five large leeches can suck the life from a rabbit in just half an hour.
Sunday, 26 August 2007
By VIRGINIA WINDER
THERE’S a possible wonder drug hiding in your spice drawer.
It’s that warm, earthy, golden-orange powder, which tends to stain your bench and clothes, and turn your fingers tobacco-yellow after you’ve been dipping naan bread into Indian curry.
Yes, it’s turmeric.
And scientists the world over are hailing it as a preventative and a cure for, well, just about anything.
The list is long. Research shows that it’s an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and digestive aid. It’s also a potential weapon in the battle against breast, prostate, lung, colon and skin cancers, along with Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease and peptic ulcers. Other studies show it prevents blood clots and lowers harmful cholesterol.
Its main ingredient, curcumin, is the “miracle” component of the spice. That’s also what provides that almost day-glo yellow hue to foods such as American mustard and Maggi chicken stock cubes.
Turmeric spice is derived from the roots of the Curcuma longa. This is an herbaceous perennial plant of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae, and is native to tropical South Asia. It needs temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius and a high rainfall to thrive. With climate change, Taranaki could soon be an ideal spot for a turmeric plot.
In medical terms, this spice is hot.
A Google search on “turmeric research” brings up 772,000 results – a daunting task for any online spice-truth seeker.
It mostly comes down to rats and mice, which are the “guinea pigs” in most of the turmeric studies.
At the University of Arizona researchers found that joint inflammation in rats was reduced by the spice.
The scientists did further studies to find what part of the turmeric root was the active anti-inflammatory ingredient. Like most research, the key was found to be curcumin.
The study revealed that an extract containing the colouring agent, but free of essential oils, was the most effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in lab rats.
The researchers believe that curcumin triggers a reaction that causes a joint-attacking protein to remain dormant in the body. The spice extract also blocks a pathway in the body that had previously been linked to bone loss. This has led researchers to believe it could also be used to treat osteoporosis.
Lead researcher Janet Funk says curcumin may also work in the treatment of other inflammatory conditions such as asthma, multiple sclerosis and bowel disease.
At this stage, the scientists say new drugs may be developed as a result of the research, but more clinical trials will be needed before they recommend turmeric supplements for treatment.
The bad news is they say that eating more of the spice is unlikely to have an effect on the diseases investigated in the study.
But cancer researchers in Houston are more optimistic about the positive effects from ingesting turmeric.
“Curcumin, as you know, is very much an essential part of the Indian diet,” says research leader Bharat Aggarwal, from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Centre.
Aggarwal says earlier studies suggest that people who eat diets rich in turmeric have lower rates of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer.
The centre’s latest tests, carried out on mice, show that curcumin helps stop the spread of breast cancer tumour cells to the lungs.
Studies are also being carried out on people because there are no fears about safety using the spice, which has been used in India for about 2500 years.
“What's exciting about this agent is that it seems to have both chemo preventive and therapeutic properties. If we can demonstrate that it is efficacious in humans, it could be of tremendous value, but we’re a long way from being able to make any recommendations yet,” Aggarwal says.
The Harvard Medical School in Boston has also been testing curcumin.
“In animal models, curcumin and its derivatives have been shown to inhibit the progression of chemically induced colon and skin cancers,” an extract from research being done by the department of dermatology says.
“The genetic changes in carcinogenesis in these organs involve different genes, but curcumin is effective in preventing carcinogenesis in both organs. A possible explanation for this finding is that curcumin may inhibit angiogenesis.”
In person-on-the-street speak, carcinogenesis means the creation of cancer, while angiogenesis is a normal bodily process that helps wounds heal through the growth of new blood vessels from existing vessels. But it’s also a fundamental step in the transition of tumours from a dormant state to a malignant or aggressive state.
The Harvard study, therefore, indicates that turmeric can stop tumours growing and spreading through the body.
Turmeric also gets the big tick from the University of Maryland, which reports that laboratory studies suggest that curcumin may reduce the destructive activity of parasites or roundworms.
Conclusion of the online seeker: Add the golden girl of spice to your daily diet, but don’t go overboard. Too much of a good thing can definitely turn bad. Just know that turmeric is of huge interest to the scientific world and 1.13 billion Indians can’t be wrong. Eat curry.
“It’s a special spice because we are using the turmeric in every curry to make a good flavour and a good colour,” says Gavinder Grewal, from New Plymouth’s India Today restaurant.
“It’s really good for health.”
She says that if someone is injured, they are given a drink of turmeric and milk, and if they cut themselves, the yellow spice is mixed with mustard oil and placed on the wound.
“It’s very good for the skin too,” Gavinder says.
Her brother-inlaw, Sunny Grewal, says turmeric works like an antibiotic. He recommends mixing a spoonful in a glass of water, with sugar and/or lemon to make it taste better.
“I was talking to grandma last night and she said in her day, every two or three weeks, they were given a drink of turmeric to keep the bugs away,” he says.
“People eat fresh turmeric for health – that’s the best way.”
Sunny says the fresh root looks like orange ginger, and can be used in dishes in the same way as its plant cousin. But he warns people to use it sparingly as the flavour is strong.
New Plymouth woman Madhu Rai swears by turmeric. “If your body is sore, you have turmeric in hot milk. It’s good for internal wounds, like when you have a baby.”
She also says in its root state, pure turmeric can be used as an antiseptic.
The spice also has a role in weddings.
Turmeric is blended with sandalwood oil and the women of the home rub the mixture all over the bride’s body. The same is done to the groom by the men of his house. This is part of a purification ritual, because the bride is going from one home to another.
Afterwards, the bride and groom each shower and dress in their marriage clothes ready for the ceremony.
1) Turmeric is used as a food covering and is listed as the additive E100 or as curcumin.
2) This multi-healing spice has many names. Turmeric (spelt tumeric on a Gregg’s packet) is also known as Indian saffron, haldee and yellow ginger; in France, Spain and Italy it’s called curcuma; and in Thailand its given name is kamin.
3) Yellow turmeric paper can be used to test for alkalinity, which turns brown. 4) When the turmeric roots or “rhizomes” are dug up, they are popped into boiling water for an hour. This is to stop the root sprouting, help with the drying process and evenly distribute the colour through the rhizome.
5) Once turmeric has been boiled and dried, it becomes rock hard through the gelatinisation of starches. This means the spice is almost impossible to grind domestically.
By VIRGINIA WINDER
IT’S do or die time for human civilization.
That was the most powerful message to come out of a climate change conference for journalists in Wellington, New Zealand.
This dire warning comes, not from a new-age hippie, but a balding, bespectacled man in a suit.
“I think in the next 20 years we, human beings, are going to know whether or not the progressive effects, the impacts we are having on the planet, are going to terminate our civilization,” says Environment Ministry deputy chief executive Lindsay Gow (right).
He is talking about the end of the world as we know it.
“That’s the bad news. The good news is I think, amongst us, as a global civilization, we’ve got more than an enough capacity to meet that challenge and a combination of just smart thinking, doing a lot of little things and progressive use of smart technology is going to do it.
“We don’t have to be despondent. It’s not the sort of thing we have to shy away from. In fact it’s very exciting – it really is. It’s a huge challenge and New Zealand can make an enormous lot out of it,” Gow says.
Climate change writer Gareth Renowden agrees.
“I would say New Zealand is the lucky country. The reason being is that we are probably going to warm more slowly than everywhere else in the world,” says the author of the just-released book, Hot Topic (below).
“We are surrounded by great big cold oceans that are going to act like air conditioners for us. So while the Northern Hemisphere could be warming really quickly, we’ll probably be quite well off.”
The warming climate may also be good news for agriculture and horticulture during the next 20 or 30 years because it will help grass growth and provide more warmth to ripen grapes.
“It could mean 30% more area for growing wine across the country – you could be growing wine in Gore, which could be quite nice. Well, we’ll know when we drink it,” Renowden says.
“Beyond those 30 years it’s really difficult to say what will happen. I’m not very optimistic, frankly, unless we really do pull our fingers out globally.”
Although New Zealand is likely to be OK, thank you very much, it will be vulnerable trade-wise, because of world weather factors.
“If climate change is rapid and damaging in Europe or North America or Asia, we’ll feel that because it will be affecting our economy. If people suddenly stop being interested in buying New Zealand wine because they are struggling to deal with floods, we’ll feel that at our end as well.”
Because this country is so far from places like Europe, Renowden says we will be greatly affected if there is a crackdown on food miles. These are measured in terms of how much carbon is released from the burning of fuel to export products to the other side of the world.
There could also be restrictions on air travel, which would hurt New Zealand’s tourism industry. “This is isn’t a subject we can afford to lose on, because if it becomes established in Britain, for instance, that it’s really bad news to fly to New Zealand, even if it’s affecting only 10% of people, that’s 10% reduction in business from Britain and that’s very, very bad news for what’s our biggest export industry.”
To survive in this new economic climate, New Zealand has to join the carbon credit trading market, which it looks like doing.
Climate Change Minister David Parker says the Government is seriously considering bringing in a cap-and-trade market for carbon credits.
This simply means that big companies would buy permits to have a carbon cap rating put on them. If the company reached its target, it would be deemed carbon neutral. If it went under its cap by becoming even more environmentally savvy, it would get carbon credits, which it could sell.
Other businesses might go over their emissions, so to compensate they would be forced to buy carbon credits from New Zealand or overseas companies or miss out on trade opportunities.
It’s possible that carbon credits could become the most tradable commodity in the world, above oil and coffee.
Renowden says being carbon neutral will be a must, especially when dealing with Europe, which has taken an aggressive position on carbon trading.
If New Zealand doesn’t do anything, its exporters could face hefty penalties in the form of a carbon tariff or tax.
“But to be realistic, if we join the carbon club and get on with meeting the global targets, then we will be free to trade.”
Businesses are leading the way in bringing down emissions, Renowden says.
So, it’s possible and probable that it will be industries, not governments, which will save the planet.
By VIRGINIA WINDER
THE man in charge of weather in New Zealand is switching off for the greater good.
Climate Change Minister David Parker, whose title instantly conjures images of a weather wizard from a Harry Potter novel, is doing his bit to stop global warming.
“In the flat I’m in I make sure I turn off the heated towel rail when I’m not there,” the list MP says, of his Wellington digs.
“I buy energy efficient light bulbs, unless it’s one (light fitting) that doesn’t take one.”
Talking to reporters at a climate change conference in the capital, Parker goes way beyond his own bathroom.
“There’s no doubt that climate change is happening,” he says.
The impact of melting polar caps and rising sea levels hit home when he attended an international conference on the heated subject earlier this year.
For two days, talking heads from around the globe talked about storms, escalating temperatures and the alarming increase of C02, which acts like a thermal drape preventing heat from the sun leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
While the topic was tossed about like a softball, a leader from Bangladesh sat patiently listening to the exchanges.
Parker says the man finally made his pitch. “He said ‘if the sea was to rise by one metre, we would have to move 30 million people’.”
That one comment stunned the father of three, who goes on to talk about the home-blown effects. “For New Zealand the results are less extreme but nevertheless serious. It will be wetter in the west and drier in the east.”
Parker also says there will be more storms and describes why in domestic terms: “It’s just like boiling a kettle – as it heats up it lets off more steam.”
Just like the sceptics, who Parker fobs off with facts and figures. “The scientists are more than 90% sure they are right.”
And with a warning: “The world only has a decade or two to get their emissions under control. The governments of the world are united on this subject.”
Apart from, he says earlier, the United States, Kazakhstan, and Australia, who are not among the 163 countries who have signed the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming.
1) Everything we do now towards reducing the greenhouse gases heating up our planet won’t be felt for another 30 years. This is called the climate commitment.
2) The world has already been heating up for 30 years, with global temperatures increasing 0.6 degrees Celsius overall. We now face another three decades of fast warming, with temperatures expected to again rise 0.6 degrees.
3) The main greenhouse gases caused by people’s activities are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone. Water vapour is also an important greenhouse gas.
4) About 64% of the warming effect of greenhouse gas increases over the last 200 years is due to carbon dioxide, produced mainly because of human activities through using fossil fuels, deforestation and agriculture.
5) Records show that 11 of the last dozen years were among the 12 warmest on record worldwide – and it’s getting warmer.
Tuesday, 14 August 2007
By VIRGINIA WINDER
THERE’S no stopping a coffee roaster browning beans.
Especially not those producing short, sharp, shots in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
“I’ll call you back in 10 minutes – I’m in the middle of roasting some beans,” says Inca-Fe’s Karen Hodson.
Ozone roaster Paul Newbold keeps checking the colour of his batch, leaping to action as the barrel roaster beeps, then opens the hatch for the hot beans to pour out for a quick cooling.
Wild Cat’s Jude Nagel explains why a coffee roaster relies on fine timing as surely as a stand-up comedian.
“It’s a matter of 30 seconds,” she says. “It’s so temperamental – a couple of flicks (of her bean testing scoop) and a couple of looks, then it’s gone too far.”
She roasts beans from Papua New Guinea, Columbia, Kenya and Guatemala in a 5kg Probat machine for her boutique business in central New Plymouth. Nagel holds green beans from different countries in each hand. Those from PNG are slightly larger and smoother than those from Columbia, which have a mottled appearance and cook faster.
These are all high-quality Coffea arabica beans, as opposed to the lower-quality Coffea canephora beans, known as robusta, not used by New Zealand roasters.
There is a third kind of bean, Coffea liberica, which has an acrid taste and has little economic significance worldwide.
She heats her machine up to 210 degrees Celsius, then adds the beans. The temperature immediately drops to 150 degrees and she ups the gauge to maintain an even heat of 160 degrees.
“You put in 5kg and get out 4.9kg,” she says, explaining how moisture is lost.
Nagel picks up a bucket of fresh beans and peels back the lid so the aroma of a French roast is released. “It’s the C02 that’s coming out.”
On storage, she recommends that people take their beans out of the bag they come in, pour them into an air-tight container and keep in a cool, dark place, like a pantry.
“And definitely not the fridge or freezer – that dries out the beans.”
Paul Newbold is hot on the roasting process, which he has been doing for eight years. “I’m definitely going for 10. I’ll be the old guy they won’t be able to get rid of,” he grins.
The Ozone roaster sweats behind a 12kg machine (a 45kg machine waiting in the wings), checking his batch with a practiced eye while talking.
He designs roasting profiles (cooking methods) for the origin beans Ozone gets from around the globe.
Newbold won’t reveal any of his secret recipes, but talks generically about the batches and more specifically about chemistry of roasting beans.
He says the first stage of coffee roasting is called endothermic, when the beans absorb heat. The second step, often called the first crack, happens when the beans double in size and turn light brown.
They then release energy or heat, which is called the exothermic step. This is followed by a short endothermic period, and then another exothermic step called the second crack, which is quicker.
“Most New Zealand roasters take 15 to 20 minutes to roast their beans,” Newbold says.
The cooling process should be done in under four minutes. “Otherwise the beans go dull – it mutes the flavours,” he says.
Jamie and Karen Hodson are immersed in the science of coffee, with a white board covered in chemical reactions and explanations.
Their expertise is the tasting, or “cupping” process, which Newbold also does at Ozone.
On their Inca-Fe boardroom table glasses are lined up like a five-against-five tequila slam competition.
Each 150ml glass is filled 8.25 grams of freshly roasted and ground beans. On one side, the beans have been dry processed while green and those on the other half have gone through the wet process. This means the just-picked beans have been fermented in water for 72 hours before being dried.
Our job is to sniff the grinds of each kind.
The dry-processed beans smell of blueberry and vanilla. Those put through the wet method have hints of Indian spices and are earthier.
“It’s quite a strict protocol for cupping,” says Karen. “This is the international standard for rating coffees.”
Jamie continues: “Cupping coffee is much the same as tasting wine and you are meant to spit. You have to, otherwise you’d go nuts.”
Next, just-boiled water is poured on the grinds until the glass is filled. After four minutes the sniffing starts again.
“Once the process starts, you don’t talk,” Jamie says.
He has cupped for up to two hours, testing 20 coffees in one session. “It’s quite intense.”
The now-steeped dry coffee smells of nutmeg and sugar, while the wet one gives off a whiff of hazelnut and maybe almonds.
Next we use a spoon to “break the cake” on the surface of the cup. The dry coffee is back to blueberry and the wet is now clearly hazelnut and vanilla.
Then it’s time to taste. We each have a larger cup to spit into, before sucking up coffee from a spoon. Karen and Jamie suck up their brew like kids supping soup.
They aren’t being bad mannered; it’s important to get air in with the taste test so the smell of the coffee is sucked up into the nasal passages.
“Flavour is made up of 80% aroma,” Karen explains.
The crema, or reddish-brown foam on a good cup of espresso, is similar to the head on a beer. “They are effervescent bubbles that burst. That’s why it’s important to have crema on espresso drinks.”
Just to prove a point, after the cupping is over, she makes flat whites with surfaces rich with deep veins of fragrant crema.
Learning the science of coffee is a big buzz.
By VIRGINIA WINDER
COFFEE lover Jamie Hodson has been living up to his business card.
“Poisonous snakes, narrow mountain passes, crazy bus drivers; the lengths I go to produce a good cup of coffee,” it reads.
The New Zealand man has been doing all that in Peru, in search of the best beans for Inca-Fe, the coffee roasting company he and wife Karen, together with Joop Verbeek and his Peruvian wife Carmen, have set up in the wilds of Waiwhakaiho, on the outskirts of New Plymouth.
This is a serious science, so Jamie and Joop went straight to the source. The men spent three weeks of seeking, sampling and securing sacks of green beans straight from coffee farmers and co-ops in the South American country.
Their quest began in Lima, population 8 million, and took them over the Andes to the lush, high-altitude jungles of Peru where the coffee grows.
“It’s the most beautiful and the most heinous,” Hodson says of the journey.
On the way they were forced off the road by mad drivers, and passed through the potently polluted city of La Roja.
“They have acid rain because they have smelters going and no restrictions,” he says. “Then two hours later you turn a corner and it goes from dust to jungle.”
The men met coffee growers, pickers and sellers, and tasted cup after cup of organic coffee, which literally left them flying. “Yeah, we did swing on a few jungle vines,” Hodson says.
As well as ordering stacks of sacks, the pair brought home a 30kg stash of samples, which led to a delay at Auckland International Airport. The beans were taken to the laboratory for testing to make sure they were free of pests, impurities and anything that could endanger New Zealand’s environment.
The beans were clean and now the pure science begins – roasting, blending, tasting and making.
All this for the love of coffee.
1) A cup of coffee and a dose of daily exercise may prevent skin cancers, according to a new study by American scientists.
2) Research shows coffee may help manage asthma and even control attacks when medication is unavailable, halt a headache, boost moods and even prevent dental cavities.
3) Coffee is best grown at high altitudes, between 800 and 2000 metres above sea level, in hot countries, between Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.
4) Cafes in Italy, New Zealand and Australia sell expressly espresso. That means they are only countries in the world to have 100% espresso-based café markets.
5) New Zealand is the land of the long white coffee. Together with Australia, it serves 98% of espresso-made drinks with milk. Italy serves just 5% of its coffee with milk.
By VIRGINIA WINDER
BLAME your mother if you’re overweight.
Sounds Freudian and perhaps a bit mean, but a breakthrough study on obesity indicates the path to becoming a podgy adult begins in the womb.
Scientists at Auckland’s Liggins Institute, led by director Professor Peter Gluckman, have been experimenting on rats to see if, or how, the nutrition of an unborn baby shapes his or her future.
Their research shows that if a mother has a poor diet during pregnancy, her developing child, or foetus, will predict a life where there is a shortage of food and will set its system to store fat.
This works if the child is born into a life of lack; but there’s a major mismatch when a wee one programmed for famine instead faces a feast, especially one high in fat and thick with fast food.
“It’s a fundamental breakthrough that says that the developmental stage is important, or even more important, in determining the way we live as adults,” Gluckman says.
Our inbuilt prediction system has buttons, which get pushed based on the information and environment a baby learns from in the womb and just after birth.
Gluckman says these buttons are called gene switches, which determine whether a child takes the high road to health or low road to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
But wait – there’s hope. The direction can be reversed.
Sorry, not for us adults, or for kindergarten-aged kids and older. Your fat fate has already been sealed (although diet and exercise can make a difference).
Back to the rats. In a joint research programme with the University of Southampton in England, Gluckman and his team used the hormone, leptin, to dose the newborn offspring of rats that had been undernourished during pregnancy, and were at risk of growing into obese adults.
Leptin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates appetite and signals to the body when it has eaten enough. The name leptin comes from the Greek word leptos, meaning thin.
“The pups that were treated with leptin went on to develop normally and did not become obese,” the study says.
Gluckman says early intervention, therefore, offers a chance for babies to turn off the obesity gene switch.
“We have proven it’s possible to do it,” he says, by cellphone from Southampton in England, where he is meeting colleagues.
But the window of opportunity is small. “We suspect, but cannot yet prove, that it’s from conception to a few days after birth,” he says, referring to the rats.
People are likely to have a better chance of change. “For humans – a year or two after birth.”
Gluckman envisages babies being tested to see which gene switch has been turned on, then treated to ensure they are on the path to being slim and healthier.
“Now we have got to find ways to do it that would be biologically meaningful and contextually possible for a human child.”
He doesn’t imagine radical or invasive treatment; instead he foresees the babies will be treated with a programme of nutrition and vitamins to get switched on for the true environment they will face – a world of plenty.
There are two processes that make the timeframe for reversal so brief, he says.
“One – the system itself becomes less plastic as it gets older.”
This means that when an organism is developing, its future is being moulded by its environment, taking signals from what is happening around them.
“Two – the switches do less.”
He says gene switches work throughout life, allowing us to grow, develop and build muscles. But as we grow, the switches don’t react so well, if at all.
Gluckman (left) likens the early gene switch process to what happens with honeybees.
Larvae that are fed royal jelly grow bigger, stronger and turn into queen bees, which can reproduce.
But if genetically identical larvae are fed on other substances, they turn into worker bees, which are smaller. “Imagine trying to have an adult bee turn from a worker bee into a queen bee – it’s not possible,” he says.
That’s why some adults struggle so badly with their weight. They were destined, from the birth, to be big.
So, to help break the cycle of obesity, mothers need to eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
Because that old adage “I’m eating for two” is turning out to be true.
1) Earth is getting weighed down with big people, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) figures. It says there are 1.6 billion overweight people and 400 million who are obese. If the weight-gain epidemic continues, the organisation predicts that by 2015, about 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese.
2) New Zealand adults are tipping the scales towards being too big, with 60% of men and 40% of women deemed as overweight. Of these, 20% are obese.
3) The most obese nations of the world are in the western Pacific. In Nauru, 80% of men are obese and 78% of women. Tonga is next, with 47% of men and 70% of women recorded as obese; and in Samoa the obesity rates are men (33%) and women (63%).
4) In New Zealand, Pacific island children are the heaviest with more than 60% either overweight or obese. Overall, nearly one-third of Kiwi kids are overweight (21%) or obese (10%).
5) The WHO defines overweight as having a body mass index (BMI) of more than 25, and obesity as having a BMI of 30 or more. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in metres (kg/m2).