Decellularized Hearts:  A heart is washed of its cells, leaving behind only the structural skeleton that gives the tissue its shape. Courtesy of University of Minnesota

PopSci.com, November 11, 2010, by Clay Dillow  —  Research presented at Sunday’s American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases in Boston marked a preliminary but potentially groundbreaking development in the search for the lab-engineered organs of the future. Scientists at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center have engineered the first functioning miniature livers from human liver cells ever created in a lab setting. The technique could open up new avenues for engineering a range of vital tissues in the lab.

To create the mini livers, the team took animal livers and washed out the animal cells with a mild detergent, a method known as “decellularization” that leaves behind only the cellular scaffold that gives the organ its structure. They then piped human cells into place via the natural vessel network that remains in the liver after the decellularization process. Connected to a bioreactor – a machine that mimics the conditions inside a living body by feeding nutrients and oxygen to the organ – the human cells began to form human liver tissue, albeit in miniature stature.

The final goal of this research, of course, is to find a means to engineer donor livers in the lab to close the supply-demand gap between those who need livers for transplant and the shortage of donor organs on hand. But engineered livers could also be used to test drugs for safety and efficacy in the lab.

Animal livers have been created in the lab using this process before, but it was never clear if researchers could do the same with human cells. Now that they’ve demonstrated the ability, the next step will be to get one into a living animal and see how it functions. Then, ostensibly, they’ll try to grow larger, more complex organs equivalent to full-grown human organs. As such, the era of made-to-order livers is still a ways off. But this important step forward for bio-engineering could contribute not only to lab-grown livers, but also to other engineered tissues that are in short supply, like kidneys or pancreases.

Virus Attack! Virus (purple) circulating in the bloodstream recognized by antibodies (yellow) of the immune system The Independent

A new virus-killing technique could hit the market in just a few years

PopSci.com, November 11, 2010, by Dan Nosowitz  —  Any immunology textbook will tell you that once a virus enters a cell, the only way to knock that virus out is to kill the entire cell. But a new study from the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge University, has shown a way to kill a virus from within the cell, leaving the virus defeated and the cell victorious and intact. This could be huge–not just a cure for the common cold, but for all kinds of other viruses as well.

The study, which will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles a fundamental of immunology. It has long been assumed that the body’s last chance to eliminate a virus is before it enters a cell–once it’s inside, it’s game over. You can kill the cell, but doing that too often is harmful to the body’s health. But this new study shows that the body actually has its own in-cell defense mechanism that can attack viruses once they’ve entered a cell–and they’re hopeful that this defense mechanism can be enhanced through external means, making the cells even stronger.

Antibodies in the bloodstream attach themselves to free-floating viruses, and are taken intact with the virus once it enters into a cell. Before that virus gets a chance to hijack the cell, a naturally occurring protein called TRIM21 recognizes the antibody, and further notices that there’s an interloper (the virus) attached to it–which, according to the strict bouncer-like rules of the TRIM21 protein, is not allowed. (Antibodies can’t roll one-virus deep, is what I’m saying.) The TRIM21 protein then triggers the cell’s defense mechanisms, which can destroy the virus in as little as one or two hours–long before the virus has a chance to take over the cell.

The research further speculates that that TRIM21 protein could be used as a sort of booster shot, perhaps delivered through a nasal spray (we do love inhalable medicine). The scientists have only experimented on cultured human cells, not whole animals, but are very confident that this kind of medicine could boost the cells’ own defenses and give them the ability to kill viruses even after they’ve entered the cell. Assisting the cell’s natural defenses allows the cell to remain functional after it’s destroyed a virus–the best kind of medicine.

These scientists believe that this sort of cure could be ready to go to clinical testing in as few as two to five years–not soon enough to stop the onset-of-winter colds we’re all about to contract, but encouragingly soon nonetheless.

The New York Times, Science/Times, November 2010, by Anahad O’Connor

For people with chronic heartburn, restful sleep is no easy feat. Fall asleep in the wrong position, and acid slips into the esophagus, a recipe for agita and insomnia.

Doctors recommend sleeping on an incline, which allows gravity to keep the stomach’s contents where they belong. But sleeping on your side can also make a difference — so long as you choose the correct side. Several studies have found that sleeping on the right side aggravates heartburn; sleeping on the left tends to calm it.

The reason is not entirely clear. One hypothesis holds that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus. Another holds that left-side sleeping keeps the junction between stomach and esophagus above the level of gastric acid.

In a study in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, scientists recruited a group of healthy subjects and fed them high-fat meals on different days to induce heartburn. Immediately after the meals, the subjects spent four hours lying on one side or the other as devices measured their esophageal acidity. Ultimately, the researchers found that “the total amount of reflux time was significantly greater” when the subjects lay on their right side.

“In addition,” they wrote, “average overall acid clearance was significantly prolonged with right side down.”

In another study, this one in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, scientists fed a group of chronic heartburn patients a high-fat dinner and a bedtime snack, then measured reflux as they slept. The right-side sleepers had greater acid levels and longer “esophageal acid clearance.” Other studies have had similar results.

THE BOTTOM LINE Lying on your right side seems to aggravate heartburn.

Red yeast rice is a bright reddish purple fermented rice, which acquires its color from being cultivated with the mold Monascus purpureus.

Active Ingredient in Popular Cholesterol-Lowering Supplement Varies Widely

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD.com

Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC

November 11, 2010 — The amount of active ingredients in red yeast rice supplements may vary widely, and some of the popular cholesterol-lowering products may also contain a toxic agent.

In a new study, researchers analyzed 12 different red yeast rice supplements, which are used by millions as an alternative therapy for high cholesterol.

They found the total level of monacolins, the active ingredients, varied from 0.31 milligrams to 11.15 milligrams per capsule. Four of the formulations also contained citrinin, a toxin from fungus that is harmful to the kidneys.

“Red yeast rice has been used for centuries for its medicinal properties and is an increasingly popular alternative lipid-lowering therapy that may benefit patients with a history of coronary disease who cannot take statins, subjects who refuse statins or who prefer a ‘natural’ approach to pharmacotherapy,” write researcher Ram Y. Gordon, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and colleagues in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

“However, our study found dramatic variability of monacolin levels in commercial products and the presence of citrinin in one-third of formulations,” they write. “Further oversight and standardization of the production and labeling of red yeast rice products may address some of the concerns raised in this study.”

Until these issues are addressed, researchers say caution is needed in using red yeast rice supplements to treat high cholesterol or prevent heart disease.

Red Yeast Rice: Buyer Beware

Chinese red yeast rice, also known as hong qu, is created by culturing a yeast (Monascus purpureus) on rice. The process produces several compounds called monacolins, such as monacolin K, which is marketed in its purified form as the drug lovastatin.

Researchers say several studies have shown certain formulations of red yeast rice can reduce LDL “bad cholesterol,” largely related to the effects of the monacolins in the supplement.

Americans spent an estimated $20 million on red rice yeast supplements in 2008. But to avoid being regulated as an unapproved drug by the FDA, researchers say manufacturers do not standardize or disclose the levels of monacolin K or other monacolins in their supplements.

In the study, researchers found not only did total monacolin levels vary widely in the 12 products analyzed, but levels of monacolin K or lovastatin ranged from 0.10 milligrams to 10.09 milligrams per capsule.

In addition, four of the products contained elevated levels of the toxin citrinin.

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, WebMD.com, November 11, 2010  —  Move over Popeye and make room for the “queen of greens,” kale. Gaining in popularity, kale is an amazing vegetable being recognized for its exceptional nutrient richness, health benefits, and delicious flavor.

Eating a variety of natural, unprocessed vegetables can do wonders for your health, but choosing super-nutritious kale on a regular basis may provide significant health benefits, including cancer protection and lowered cholesterol.

Kale, also known as borecole, is one of the healthiest vegetables on the planet. A leafy green, kale is available in curly, ornamental, or dinosaur varieties. It belongs to the Brassica family that includes cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, collards, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.

What makes kale so exceptional? Here is why it’s a superstar vegetable — and ways to work it into your diet.

Kale is a Nutritional Powerhouse

One cup of kale contains 36 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and 15% of the daily requirement of calcium and vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), 40% of magnesium, 180% of vitamin A, 200% of vitamin C, and 1,020% of vitamin K. It is also a good source of minerals copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.

Kale’s health benefits are primarily linked to the high concentration and excellent source of antioxidant vitamins A, C, and K — and sulphur-containing phytonutrients.

Carotenoids and flavonoids are the specific types of antioxidants associated with many of the anti-cancer health benefits. Kale is also rich in the eye-health promoting lutein and zeaxanthin compounds.

Beyond antioxidants, the fiber content of cruciferous kale binds bile acids and helps lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease, especially when kale is cooked instead of raw.

Super-Rich in Vitamin K

Eating a diet rich in the powerful antioxidant vitamin K can reduce the overall risk of developing or dying from cancer, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vitamin K is abundant in kale but also found in parsley, spinach, collard greens, and animal products such as cheese.

Vitamin K is necessary for a wide variety of bodily functions, including normal blood clotting, antioxidant activity, and bone health.

But too much vitamin K can pose problems for some people. Anyone taking anticoagulants such as warfarin should avoid kale because the high level of vitamin K may interfere with the drugs. Consult your doctor before adding kale to your diet.

Kale might be a powerhouse of nutrients but is also contains oxalates, naturally occurring substances that can interfere with the absorption of calcium. Avoid eating calcium-rich foods like dairy at the same time as kale to prevent any problems.

In summer, vegetable choices abound. But during the cooler months, there are fewer in-season choices — with the exception of kale and other dark, leafy greens that thrive in cooler weather.

To find the freshest kale, look for firm, deeply colored leaves with hardy stems. Smaller leaves will be more tender and milder in flavor. Leaves range from dark green to purple to deep red in color.

Store kale, unwashed, in an air-tight zipped plastic bag for up to five days in the refrigerator.

Easy Ways to Prepare Kale

Quick cooking preserves kale’s nutrients, texture, color, and flavor. Rinse kale, chop it finely, and add it soups, stews, stir-frys, salads, egg dishes, or casseroles. Or top pizzas with kale for added nutritional goodness. Steam kale for five minutes to make it more tender or eat it raw. You can also substitute it for spinach or collard greens in recipes.

Other fast and easy ways to prepare kale:

  • Make a simple salad with a bunch of thinly sliced kale, red pepper, onion, raisins, and your favorite salad dressing.
  • Braise chopped kale and apples, garnish with chopped walnuts, and add a splash of balsamic vinegar.
  • Toss whole-grain pasta with chopped kale, pine nuts, feta cheese, and a little olive oil.
  • Cover and cook a pound of chopped kale with a few garlic cloves and 2 tablespoons olive oil for 5 minutes; season with salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of red wine vinegar.
  • Make kale chips by slicing kale into bite-size pieces, toss with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, and bake for 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees in the oven.

All vegetables are rich in nutrients and fiber, fat-free, and low in calories and are intended to be the cornerstone of all healthy diets. Toss kale into your grocery cart to enrich the nutritional goodness of your diet and help you eat the recommended 4-5 servings of vegetables every day.

Target Health Inc. suggestion: during the fall, winter and cool spring months, we make lots of soup.  We keep fresh kale and fresh baby spinach on hand all the time, and then just wash a few leaves and rip by hand, adding these pieces to any soup or stew.  Not only is this addition very healthy, but it adds a nice flavor to all soups and stews. (salads, too, of course)