In my grown-up day job life I play with cells, chemicals, and little pretty pictures of chemicals on computers. It requires lots of reading, a steady infusion of caffeine (because let’s be honest, even those of us who like this stuff find it boring to read), and patience. Results can take years to materialize. Much like Thomas Edison, I may find hundreds of ways not to do a reaction before I find the one way that works. Fate or synchronicity, in either case I find myself continually intrigued by the connections between my life and health and the research field I stumbled into. In 2009 I re-applied to graduate school after a six-year hiatus. The lab I worked in back in 2003 focused on cancer, most specifically prostate cancer. I didn’t really care what I researched as long as I got back into school, so when I talked to the professors, only one had the funds to take me on. Tada, my current lab. I had no idea what nucleoside transporters were or what they did, and as most people would, I deduced that well, “They transport nucleosides.” Needless to say, after two years I’ve learned a great deal more than that.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with food? In previous posts I mentioned that I have Celiacs. Celiacs is an extreme intestinal disease state which results from a sensitivity to gluten, a type of protein found in grains, most specifically wheat, rye and barley. The sensitivity is hereditary. They have pinpointed the genes and confirmed the link. The confusion, whether it is a doctor or average every day person, lies in understanding that the genes are similar to the genes that say, give you brown hair. They simply are, and like brown hair, are very common. At the same time, there are many many shades of brown hair. Even educated doctors tend to misunderstand, believing that this auto-immune disorder (Celiacs) is a rare phenomenon. I can’t really blame them. I thought the same thing. I never even heard about it until eight years or so ago, and even after reading the article, following a brief “OMG what if THAT’S my problem?”, I went, “Nah!” There was no family history. Surely, if I had what these people described I would be sicker. Fast-forward eight years and oh yeah I was sicker and a family history did exist. We simply didn’t know it at the time. The disease state doesn’t happen over night. Dr. Osborne, a doctor who seems to be the premiere spokes-person for gluten sensitivity and research has compiled research and medical evidence showing that the prevalence of gluten sensitivity is more pervasive than people think and is likely effecting us in ways most people would never even dream. Given the severity of my condition, combined with the fact I seem to have a plethora of the recessive genes in the family, I got two copies of the “I hate gluten” gene. I had problems even as an infant. I groan thinking of the number of times I was told about how colicky I was, how much gas I had, etc. My pediatrician was an excellent doctor. He suspected there was something going on inside of me, but he didn’t know what and the tests for Celiacs were not well known back then. Even so, the blood test would have told him nothing, as I do not make IgA antibodies (what is tested), but some other type. Even at my sickest, I tested negative, as did my sister, and my grandmother. My grandmother is seventy plus years and for the last twenty at least has had stomach problems and ulcers. Her biopsy showed extreme damage. At four or five, I probably wouldn’t have shown any.
Wheat, the highest gluten containing grain, came into the farming scene late in the game. A mere two-hundred or so years ago. Consider, the human race is roughly ten thousand years old. In comparison, we have been steadily consuming grains for only a fraction of that time period. Factor in the genetic modifications in the last thirty and mysterious ailments such as IBS are on the rise. Oddly enough, doctors seem oblivious to the possibility that diet could be the root cause. I was told that perhaps I had GERD or IBS, or maybe I just needed more fiber. They didn’t see how the stomach issues could possibly be related to increasingly annoying hormonal problems I was experiencing. No blood panel for vitamin deficiencies was taken. I was confounded until my grandmother was diagnosed. Then I realized, not only my problem, but why my son complained regularly of headaches and stomach aches, why my daughter experienced random bouts of vomiting without any other signs of illness.
So while Dr. Osborne spreads the word and awareness, by sheer fortune I seem to have landed into the ideal area of research to figure out how we might one day modulate a person’s immune response. I have always been driven to ask “WHY?” I seek answers even when it drove teachers nuts. As a result of my refusal to take pills without knowing the why, I found the root cause of my illness and diet change, while far from easy, has improved my health drastically. The last year and half I had to take so many sick days that my professor got worried I might by a poor investment. I’ve yet to take a single sick day this semester. I’ve had a couple of sniffly colds, but they never got very bad and went away within days. Setbacks still happen as my tolerance for any contamination is exceedingly low, however healing 32 yrs of damage takes more than a few months.
The common link between auto-immune disorders, chronic allergies, and even cancer, is understanding how the body regulates the signal it gets when it sees a particle (food, pollen, virus, bacteria, etc). Certain people, by chance of crappy genetic dice, over-respond. Couple that with pre-existing sensitivities and you have the perfect storm for auto-immune disorders. Toss in the sea of hormones women have in their bloodstream and you get the gender gap between males and females for autoimmune disorders.
It is eerie that as I read journal articles discussing nucleoside transporter expression levels and their connections to various diseases, I can draw correlations to my own health and the health patterns in previous generations. Further frustrating is the fact that so many grant reviewers out there have such little understanding of chemistry and the biology we are exploring that they dismiss it as unimportant. They don’t see the next block-buster drug. Is it going to lower cholesterol? Make people skinny? Give eighty-year old men erections? No? Eh,no, you don’t get funding.
The news blares the trumpet against rising obesity. Inactivity and poor lifestyle choices are to blame for much, but all of the additives, wheat and gluten being high on the list, could be doing far more harm than we realize.
Hopefully I can assist my professor in slogging through the disbelief and dismissal so that we may understand and thus reverse the disease states resulting in over-amplification of immune responses.