North Carolina Health News
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High Death Rates in Cancer ‘Hotspots’ Across NC


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In parts of North Carolina, people die from cancers at much higher rates. Some cancers have been linked to malnutrition, race and poverty while others don’t have clear risk factors.

By Minali Nigam

Cancer has been the leading cause of the death in North Carolina since 2009, when it surpassed heart disease as the Grim Reaper’s best friend here.

Combining death rates from all types of cancer, in 2013 North Carolina saw 167.7 deaths out of 100,000 people, which is about the national average.

But there are pockets of the state where death rates are considerably higher than average, and one of the worst areas, not just in the state but in the country, is in northeast North Carolina, said Sam Cykert, UNC-Chapel Hill’s director of health and clinical informatics.

Researchers at UNC have been looking at survival outcomes for adults with one type of blood cancer called acute myeloid leukemia (AML). In a study, published in June, they found three “hotspots” associated with higher death rates from AML including parts of northeastern North Carolina, a region near Greenville, and a region in northern Wake County, extending into Durham.

“Our study wasn’t able to pick out the exact reasons for this,” said Ashley Freeman, a clinical fellow at UNC and one of the study’s authors. “But it was interesting to note that it wasn’t a simple relationship with race or income level, education level and things like that.”

“We believe this means there’s something more complex going on with the local health care structure and possibly at the provider level that’s affecting outcome for patients.”

NCMortalityRates

Data and map, courtesy NC State Center for Health Statistics.

A complex disease

Each type of cancer has its own “complex mechanisms” and can present differently from patient to patient, and even from state to state, said Andrew Olshan, the director of the epidemiology department for UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

“Different cancers have different risk factors and some are definitely driven by things that are linked with socioeconomic status and poverty,” he said, “Some cancers don’t follow that pathway.”

For example, people in geographic areas with high death rates from colorectal cancer, Olshan said, often don’t get the screening and treatment to remove the cancer, a result of inadequate access to healthcare facilities.

AML is a cancer that follows a different pathway.

“AML is a pretty rare disease so not every physician out there is going to be familiar with the treatment, diagnosis and follow-up,” said Freeman. It’s important to have specialists who know what they’re seeing.”

So it was hard to draw a straight line between the location and the reason why more people died in that place from AML, Freeman said. But the study did find one high-risk region having fewer general practitioners and radiation oncologists.

An IV chemotherapy bag hangs in the chemo wards at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill.

An IV chemotherapy bag hangs in the chemotherapy ward at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“It may be that there are less services available in those areas and may be affecting things like referrals,” to the correct specialist, she said.

North Carolina is uniquely positioned because there are three National Cancer Institute (NCI) centers, said UNC cancer epidemiology researcher Anne Marie Meyer. She was also involved with the AML study.

Meyer says some states don’t even have cancer centers. Yet, even though North Carolina has several NCI cancer centers, “we still see patients in the state who aren’t being referred.”

Part of the problem, she said, could be that doctors in rural areas are overwhelmed by diseases such as Type II diabetes, heart failure and stroke and they fail to refer patients to specialists.

“In the AML context, timing is of the essence, with regard to getting a patient diagnosed and into care and into intensive chemotherapy,” Meyer said.

According to the American Cancer Society, “this leukemia can progress quickly if not treated and would probably be fatal in a few months.”

“Some patients who have preventable and treatable cancers are missed. It’s really a function of not only demographics and [socioeconomics], but also health care infrastructure that’s available in specialty care,” Meyer said.

‘Moving the dial’

Doctors, state legislators and cancer survivors came together over the past several years to help write the North Carolina Comprehensive Cancer Control Plan for 2014 to 2020. The plan addresses ongoing healthcare needs and treatments for six different types of preventative cancers that are linked to factors such as tobacco use, poverty and health care coverage.

“When we look at breast, cervical and colon cancer, even after we control for race and poor insurance coverage, we still see inequalities that are potentially geographic in nature,” said Meyer.

“What this tells us is cancer is a complex disease,” she said.

In an effort to reduce geographic cancer disparities in the state, the cancer control plan calls for early detection through routine screenings, partnerships with transportation, employment and housing services for underserved patients, and education programs.

x-ray image of a chest. Both sides of the lungs are visible with a growth on the left side of the lung, which could be lung cancer.

X-ray image of a chest. Both sides of the lungs are visible with a growth on the left side of the lung, which could be lung cancer. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia creative commons

“We are trying to move the dial in North Carolina to lessen mortality and lessen disparities by region, by racial ethnic group, etc.,” said Olshan.

One clear intervention is screening for colorectal cancer, he said.

“It’s a tractable problem and among the most common cancer,” which is why research is targeting a more precise definition of colorectal cancer hotspots and increase screening in those areas.

People don’t have access to the services needed to get colonoscopies to more patients. “We’re not going to go in overnight and obviously reduce poverty” and other barriers to screening, Olshan said.

“We have to work with the health department, healthcare providers, a whole variety of network groups… It’s clearly a multidisciplinary approach to try and implement an intervention and spread the dissemination of a proven intervention like screening.”

Dispatch From the International AIDS Conference: Social Media, Isolation and Risky Behavior


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Lee Storrow, the head of the NC AIDS Action Network, is in Durban, South Africa for the 2016 International Conference on AIDS to present his own research. This week, NC Health News will be featuring some stories from Lee about the conference and where North Carolina fits into the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

By Lee Storrow

The poster presentation section at the International Conference on AIDS is overwhelming. The five sections line the perimeter of the second floor of the convention center, a space twice the size of Raleigh’s Halifax Mall. Hundreds of posters are on display each day.

You can read the details of the results on LaGrand’s abstract here.On Tuesday, I spoke with Dr. Sara LeGrand, Assistant Research Professor of Global Health at the Duke Global Health Institute. She was presenting her research on whether the use of social networking (Facebook, Instagram) and dating/hook-up sites (Grindr, Jack’d) in young black men who have sex with men (MSM) in North Carolina could predict whether these men felt socially isolated.

Apps such as Grindr and Instagram are here to stay. The question is how HIV prevention advocates can get their messages out to users.

Apps such as Grindr and Jack’d are here to stay. The question is how HIV prevention advocates can get their messages out to users. Image courtesy: Grindr

The study reveals that young black MSM are, indeed, using social networking accounts and using those accounts may reduce these men’s feelings of social isolation.

Across the survey of N.C. teens, participants reported an average of 7.35 hours of Internet use per day and the average number of social networking platforms – such as Facebook or Grindr –  that participants used was 3.62. The study found that the more social network sites used translated into decreased feelings of social isolation, as well as increased searching for sex partners online.

“I think the results of this study are especially important for young people in rural areas of North Carolina who often face greater stigma around their sexuality,” said Dr. LeGrand.

Dr. Mehri McKellar and Dr. Jessica Seidelman present their research on the willingness of primary care providers to prescribe PrEP at the International Conference on AIDS in Durban, South Africa.

Dozens of North Carolina researchers are at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in South Africa this week. Here, Drs. Mehri McKellar and Jessica Seidelman from Duke University present their research on the willingness of primary care providers to prescribe PrEP at the International Conference on AIDS in Durban, South Africa. Photo credit: Lee Storrow

There’s been a lot of chatter about the rise of dating and hook-up apps and their potentially negative role in changing the nature of gay sex. At the same time, gay men in rural parts of North Carolina have limited support systems and often live in homophobic environments. If Grindr can provide even a limited outlet to remind a closeted gay man that he is not alone, it might be beneficial.

Dating and hook-up apps aren’t going away any time soon. HIV prevention advocates need to think about how to harness those apps to disseminate positive prevention messages and build support systems for those most at risk.

Study: North Carolina Minors Have Easy Online Access to E-Cigs


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Despite legislators’ and parents’ efforts, kids have no problem buying electronic cigarettes online.

By Bradley Allf

Gone are the days of the Marlboro Man, but the tobacco industry is finding new ways to lure young people. Though today’s youth smoke far fewer cigarettes than their counterparts did 20 years ago, an emerging market for electronic cigarettes is providing a new outlet for nicotine use among young people.

Since funding for North Carolina's teen smoking cessation program was cut, more teens are using nicotine, either by lighting up or using e-cigarettes.

Since funding for North Carolina’s teen smoking cessation program was cut, more teens are using nicotine, either by lighting up or using e-cigarettes. Photo courtesy Nerissa’s Ring, flickr creative commons

Despite a state law prohibiting the sale of these products to people younger than 18, a study by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers found that North Carolina minors can easily obtain electronic cigarettes over the internet.

“E-cigarettes,” as they are called, are a group of various battery-operated devices that allow users to inhale nicotine vapor.

Originally promoted as smoking cessation devices, the products are now exploding in popularity among teens, many of whom have never smoked conventional cigarettes. One recent study found that high school seniors are now twice as likely to use e-cigarettes as conventional cigarettes. Of the estimated 4.7 million middle and high-school students in the US that used tobacco products in 2015, 3 million were e-cigarette users.

The e-cigarette business, almost nonexistent 10 years ago, has burgeoned into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Effective policies have struggled to keep pace, leading one FDA official to label the market the “wild, wild West.”

North Carolina, for its part, outlawed the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in 2013. Researcher Rebecca Williams from UNC-Chapel Hill wanted to find out how effective this law was in preventing minors from purchasing e-cigarettes online.

To test this, her team recruited 11 teenagers from 14 to 17 years old to try to purchase e-cigarettes over the internet. The research is described in an article in JAMA Pediatrics.

The research

The team identified 98 online e-cigarette vendors for the study. They then allowed the 11 teens, under supervision, to attempt to buy e-cigarette products from the different vendors.

Of the 98 purchase attempts, only 5 failed due to age-verification requirements.

Durham Tobacco Co advertisement

NC State Fair Premium List, 1893. Image courtesy of Government & Heritage Library, North Carolina State Library, via Flickr Creative Commons

In fact, more than 80 percent of vendors either did not attempt to verify age, or used clearly ineffective means of verifying age, such as offering a check box. The only consistently effective age-verification techniques that Williams and her team found were requirements to enter a date of birth in conjunction with a social security number.

Williams is a researcher at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She has done similar studies on youth access to conventional cigarettes and anticipated these results.

“The rate of success with e-cigarettes is similar to what we found with cigarettes,” she said. “So it didn’t surprise me at all that it was easy to buy e-cigarettes online for teens.”

So why aren’t online vendors following North Carolina law? Williams explains that part of the issue is jurisdictional.

“When you’re making an online purchase, where is that purchase taking place? Is it taking place where the person who is ordering is located? Is it where the website is hosted? Is it where the business is located?” she asked. “Those all may be in different states and different countries.”

It can be tough to know where exactly the boundaries of enforcement fall when dealing with online purchases. It is also exceedingly difficult to track down these vendors, many of whom operate internationally.

Better than cigarettes?

According to a report released by the American Heart Association last year, “[e]- cigarettes are mostly unregulated and their health effects are not fully known, especially when associated with long-term use.”

Research on the effects of traditional cigarettes accumulated over decades. However, because e-cigarettes sprang quickly onto the US market in 2007, there hasn’t been enough time for researchers to determine how e-cigarettes affect the human body.

Some of the e-cigarette liquids for sale in N.C. today. Flavors from left to right: watermelon, Irish Cream and appletini.

Some of the e-cigarette liquids for sale in N.C. today. Flavors from left to right: watermelon, Irish Cream and appletini. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Despite this, there are already some known risks associated with e-cigarettes. One instance concerns the chemicals used to flavor the vapor. While these chemical products are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for ingestion, they have not been approved for inhaling.

“Safe to ingest does not mean safe to vaporize and inhale,” Williams says. “When they vaporize a product at a high temperature, it creates more and more dangerous chemicals that can be damaging to lung tissue and other tissue.”

Chemicals such as diacetyl (butter or popcorn flavor) and cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon flavor), both of which are found in many e-cigarette flavorings, pose known health risks.

In addition, nicotine itself is highly addictive and can have long-term consequences for brain development, particularly for young people.

Taken together, these health risks have many people concerned.

“I think we know they’re not safe and we’re still finding out how unsafe they are,” says Peg O’Connell of the North Carolina Alliance for Health. “I think that’s the public health message.”

Policy changes

At the national scale, the FDA announced in May that it will begin regulating the sale of e-cigarettes in August. This policy was partially informed by the Internet Tobacco Vendors Study, which based its suggestions on the research findings of Williams and her team.

Williams believes this is a step in the right direction. She said a national policy would address some of the jurisdictional problems associated with having different regulations in different states. She hopes that the FDA will end up enacting strict age-verification requirements for online vendors at both the point of order and the point of delivery to keep minors from getting access to e-cigarettes.

Locally, North Carolina health organizations are working on a number of fronts to enact policies designed to stem the rising number of young people who are using e-cigarettes.

O’Connell is working with the North Carolina Alliance for Health to bring back the state’s formerly award-winning youth tobacco prevention program. According to O’Connell, education initiatives such as the state’s previous anti-tobacco effort may be effective in keeping e-cigarettes away from minors.

The Orange County Board of Health, in concert with the Orange County Board of Commissioners and counties across the state, has been advocating other e-cigarette control policies.

Orange County health educator Coby Jansen Austin said those two bodies support a public policy of giving jurisdictions the right to raise the minimum sale age for tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21.

According to Austin, policy actions make a real difference in decreasing the number of young people who start using tobacco products.

“What we know has worked in tobacco control and contributed to a lot of the drop in tobacco use that we’ve seen over the last five or six decades are some of the policies around tobacco,” she says. “And so I think the FDA regulations are a good example of where we have the appropriate research and we take appropriate policy actions. It’s not just about education and sharing information, though those are also components.”

Correction: This article originally stated the research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Study Finds Encouraging Surgical Outcomes at Critical Access Hospitals


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By Taylor Sisk

On the heels of a report warning that more than a third of the nation’s critical access hospitals are in danger of closure comes some encouraging news. A new study indicates certain procedures are being performed in these small hospitals more safely and at a lower cost than in larger institutions.

A University of Michigan team of researchers looked at four common surgeries – appendectomy, gall bladder removal, hernia repair and removal of all or part of the colon – and found no statistically significant difference in 30-day mortality rates between critical access and other hospitals.

Further, critical access hospitals experienced serious complications in performing these procedures 6.4 percent of the time as compared with 13.9 percent of the time in other hospitals.

CAHs also billed Medicare an average of $1,400 less for the procedures.

CAHs serve many of the nation’s remotest regions. By definition, they have fewer than 25 beds and are more than 35 miles from the next nearest hospital. They must maintain an average length of stay of 96 hours or less for acute-care patients and provide 24-hour emergency-care services. In return, they receive preferential reimbursement from Medicare, which covers more of their costs.

North Carolina had 20 critical access hospitals as of Nov. 2014. Since that time, Yadkin Valley TKTK Hospital has closed. Blue areas on the map indicate non-metropolitan counties.

North Carolina had 20 critical access hospitals as of Nov. 2014. Since that time, Yadkin Valley Community Hospital has closed. Blue areas on the map indicate non-metropolitan counties. Map courtesy UNC Sheps Center for Health Services Research

There are 1,284 CAHs throughout the country; North Carolina has 20.

Two CAHs in the state have shut down in just over two years: Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven in February 2014 and Yadkin Valley Community Hospital in Yadkinville in May of last year.

Doing what they should

The Michigan researchers examined more than 1.6 million Medicare-beneficiary admissions to 828 CAHs and 3,676 other hospitals. Their results were published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Transylvania Regional Hospital. Photo credit: John Warner

Transylvania Regional Hospital. Photo credit: John Warner

The researchers found that patients who had any of the four types of operations at CAHS tended to be healthier upon admission than patients treated for the same procedures at other hospitals. They said this indicated CAH surgeons appropriately selected patients who they felt would be most likely to have positive outcomes, while sending higher-risk patients to larger hospitals.

“From a surgical standpoint, these hospitals appear to be doing exactly what we would want them to be doing: common operations on appropriately selected patients who are safe to stay locally for their care,” lead author Andrew Ibrahim said in a release.

That said, even after correcting for differences in health status at the time of the operations, the CAHs had equal or better outcomes.

‘On the firing line’

In rural communities throughout the country, small hospitals in general, and critical access hospitals in particular, are facing mounting challenges including reduced reimbursements; aging, declining populations; and difficulties recruiting health care professionals.

“Critical access hospitals are on the firing line. They’re in the middle of the target,” Alvin Hoover, past chairman of the American Hospital Association’s Small or Rural Governing Council and current board chair of the Mississippi Hospital Association, said in a recent interview. “It’s hard for me to understand why you want to target those guys, because if you look at the cost of care, they do it cheaper than anybody else.

“If you can keep that person home, right there in that local community, your cost of treatment of that pneumonia patient, [for example], is going to be way less than it is if you have to send them to the big university.”

The outcomes found in this research, the study’s authors write, should “inform legislators about the valuable role critical access hospitals provide in the U.S. health care system.”

This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina.

New Testing Technique Could Make Identifying Potentially Hazardous Chemicals Easier

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Recent work in finding more efficient ways of testing chemicals is almost more important than the potential hazards of the chemicals themselves.

By Catherine Clabby

When UNC-Chapel Hill scientists spilled commonly used fungicides onto mouse brain cells, genes inside those cells changed. Activity levels among some of the genes shifted to distinctive patterns observed in the brains of people with autism.

First hear this: No one has proven that a class of popular crop-field fungicides causes brain damage. For starters, mouse brain cells are not human brain cells (though they are more alike than many people know). And cell studies don’t prove that chemical X produces human brain abnormality Y.

Researcher Mark Zylka

UNC-Chapel Hill Researcher Mark Zylka has been looking at the effects of some fungicides on the brain cells of mice. Photo courtesy UNC.

That said, the recently published research is compelling evidence that the potential of human health risks from a popular class of farm fungicides may merit closer study.

“There are so many questions to be answered,” said UNC cell biologist Mark Zylka, who led the chemical-screening project. “Do these chemicals get in the blood? Do they get into the brain? If so, in what concentrations?

Despite uncertainties about a real-world risk, Zylka is confident there is promise in the technique used to make this headline-grabbing discovery. The approach is a step forward in the scientific quest to more rapidly screen chemicals for potential impacts on human health, this time in the brain.

Trial and error

The breadth and accuracy of toxicology studies are vital in today’s chemical-laden world. Their results strongly influence government rulings on safe and unsafe levels of the tens of thousands of manufactured chemicals registered for use in the United States alone.

For nearly 100 years, many toxicology studies exposed mice or other lab animals to chemicals to see if they do harm. Damage to skin, disruption of reproduction and the growth of tumors all flag concerns.

But it isn’t always clear how to extrapolate data from one strain of mice to diverse populations of people. And animal studies can’t clarify precisely how chemicals affect functioning in cells, information that both help prevent and treat illness.

Several federal research agencies, particularly those located in North Carolina, are promoting newer toxicology screens. These use automated laboratory tools, computer analysis and plates of cells or tissues as research subjects to help predict ways that compounds might affect people and the environment.

Closing in

Automated cell-based screenings broaden the number of chemical targets that can be screened and pick up the pace of studies because they can be cheaper and quicker than animal-based tests, said Scott Auerbach, a molecular toxicologist at the National Toxicology Program in Research Triangle Park.

Botrytis cinerea fungus on Riesling grapes, noble rot. Fungus can badly damage food crops, ornamental plants and turf. Photo courtesy: Tom Maack, Wikimedia creative commons

Botrytis cinerea fungus on Riesling grapes, noble rot. Fungus can badly damage food crops, ornamental plants and turf. Photo courtesy Tom Maack, Wikimedia creative commons

“The idea is to get us closer more quickly to the things that we should be looking at. Potentially no stone will get left unturned,” said Auerbach, whose program is part of the Toxicology in the 21st Century initiative. So is the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where NTP is based; the Food and Drug Administration; and other federal agencies.

Environmental Protection Agency staff in RTP, also Tox21 participants, compiled nearly 300 chemicals that Zylka’s team screened. Those included pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and compounds used to make plastics, among others.

The UNC researchers employed genomic sequencing tools to capture changes in gene activity in its mouse neurons after they were dosed.

The rates at which genes direct the production of proteins in different types of cells is essential to health. Overactive or underactive genes are less likely to produce the amount of proteins that cells require to grow or function normally.

Increasingly, genetic studies are linking patterns of abnormal gene activity to specific illnesses and disorders. Differences detected in brain cells of people with autism, for instance, include reduced activity of genes involved in transmission of signals between neurons and increased activity among genes involved in immune responses.

Zylka’s team found that exposure to fungicides called quinone outside inhibitors produced those very types of changes in the mouse neurons, in addition to other effects. Among the fungicides screened were pyraclostrobin, trifloxystrobin, famoxadone and fenamidone, agricultural chemicals modeled after an antifungual chemical forest mushrooms emit to protect themselves.

Farm chemistry

Agricultural chemical companies in North Carolina – BASF, Bayer and Syngenta – are among the producers of products using this class of fungicides. With names such as Cabrio, Reason and Abound, they suppress damaging fruit rot, mold, mildew and other blights on everything from berries to lettuce and nuts and improve farmers’ yields.

In food-crop fields and other agricultural settings, these types of fungicides work by impairing structures inside fungi cells called mitochondria. The structures are important in cells of many organisms because they produce the chemical energy cells can use to power many activities.

Trifloxystrobin is one of the fungicides tested by Zylka's team to see the chemical's effect on mouse brain cells.

Trifloxystrobin is one of the fungicides tested by Zylka’s team to see the chemical’s effect on mouse brain cells. Chart courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

In their paper, Zylka’s team cites FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing that residue from quinone outside inhibitors has been detected on food, including spinach and apples, but in extremely tiny amounts measured in parts per million. Federal studies have documented residue from this class of fungicides on food, particularly leafy green vegetables.

Darren Wallis, a Bayer spokesman, said his company is committed to producing safe products that must undergo rigorous testing before release and are monitored by the company and regulatory agencies around the world once in circulation. Bayer scientists, he said, will certainly review the UNC findings and assess if any next steps are needed.

“The people of Bayer take our jobs of creating products to help improve the lives of people, plants and animals very seriously,” Wallis said.

Effects from exposure to chemicals released into the environment is an active area in autism research. Evidence exists, for instance, that pregnant women living close to farmlands and exposed to a limited number of pesticides are at increased risk of giving birth to children who will be diagnosed with autism, one clue that exposures may increase risk of the disorder.

Given indications that prenatal exposures play a role in autism, good research that sheds light on how chemicals affect neurons is needed, said Geraldine Dawson, director of the Center for Autism and Brain Development at Duke University, who was not involved in the UNC study.

“Zylka and his team have developed a really efficient way to test how a wide range of toxins influence the expressions of genes involved in neuronal development and function,” Dawson said. ”This high-throughput approach will be critical for identifying which combinations of toxins are associated with increased risk.”

Because of what they saw in the brain cells exposed to fungicides, the expanded use of the compounds and their detection on food, the UNC scientists in their paper called for “greater scrutiny” on the fungicides’ effects outside cells too.

There is now reason to observe effects on brains, they said, and behavior.

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Though Zika Unlikely a Risk in N.C., Local Efforts Are Scaling Up


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Research and response teams in North Carolina are preparing.

By Rose Hoban

It’s cold in North Carolina right now. So people aren’t sitting on their porches swatting at mosquitoes.

But even when the weather warms up and the local bloodsucking bugs start flying, the question for many people is: Is it possible to get the Zika virus in North Carolina?

commonly known as the Asian Tiger mosquito, Aedes Albopictus is capable of transmitting chikungunya. Photo courtesy Wiki

Commonly known as the Asian Tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus is capable of transmitting dengue and Zika. More commonly, however, Aedes aegypti is the culprit. Photo courtesy Wikimedia creative commons

The answer, according to researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill, is, essentially, “No.”

“There’s not zero risk of anything, but I wouldn’t worry about transmission of Zika in the U.S.,” said Aravinda de Silva, an infectious-disease researcher at UNC who specializes in dengue virus, another mosquito-borne virus in the same family as Zika.

Though there are mosquitoes in the U.S. capable of carrying Zika, de Silva said there’s an exceedingly slim chance of someone in this country getting Zika from a mosquito.

There have been small outbreaks of dengue in Key West and along the Texas-Mexico border. But da Silva said Zika diagnoses in the U.S. will overwhelmingly come from travelers who bring it home from their Caribbean or Latin American vacation.

“Let’s put the U.S. aside for a moment. There’s more globally; all these people living in endemic areas,” he said. “There are huge populations living in these large urban centers, millions and millions of people who are at risk of getting dengue, and those same populations are at risk of getting Zika.”

“If it wasn’t for  the microcephaly, it wouldn’t be unique,” said UNC infectious-disease specialist David Weber, referring to a strongly suspected link between Zika infection in pregnant women in Brazil and a sharp uptick in a birth defect known as microcephaly.

“Otherwise, [Zika] is just a mild illness, which is why there’s been so little research,” he said.

According to da Silva and Weber, who both presented last week, researchers from the university are mobilizing to study the disease.

Even as the UNC researchers were presenting, a study was released in the New England Journal of Medicine showing direct links between even mild Zika infections in pregnant women and the birth defect. What is disturbing to the authors of that study was that only about a third of the women tested actually had a fever; the rest never knew they were sick.

Air conditioning and window screens

Zika is closely related to dengue, which has been spreading widely in Latin America and the Caribbean for the past few years. Commonly known as “breakbone fever,” dengue usually causes mild fever. But in a limited percentage of patients, its muscle and joint pains can be just plain awful.

Yet out of the estimated 390 million cases of dengue worldwide in 2013, only 794 were diagnosed in the U.S. Most of those were travelers who acquired the disease while abroad.

Aedes aegypti is the mosquito responsible for the spread of Zika virus. Map courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013.

Aedes aegypti is the mosquito responsible for the spread of Zika virus. Map courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013

There has been some local transmission in the U.S., but the spread has been limited. Even in places in the U.S. like Key West and along the Texas-Mexico border where there are the right kind of mosquitoes – namely, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus – and the weather is warm enough, there’s reduced risk of those bugs actually carrying disease from one person to another.

“This has mostly to do with lifestyle factors such as air conditioning and window screens, which limit the spread of mosquito-borne viruses here,” said Helen Lazear, a UNC microbiologist who studies mosquito-borne diseases, during last week’s presentation.

In a recent Key West dengue outbreak, there were only 28 confirmed cases of locally transmitted disease between August 2009 and March 2010.

More than the U.S.

Lazear floated the suspicion that prior infection with dengue, as is common in Brazil and other countries where Zika is currently raging, can actually make Zika cases worse.

According to Lazear and da Silva, Zika triggers the immune response created after a person has gotten dengue.

Aravinda da Silva runs a lab at UNC-Chapel Hill dedicated to studying dengue virus, a mosquito-borne disease closely related to Zika. Photo courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill

Aravinda da Silva runs a lab at UNC-Chapel Hill dedicated to studying dengue virus, a mosquito-borne disease closely related to Zika. Photo courtesy UNC-Chapel Hill

“Unfortunately, dengue and Zika are too close and it’s very difficult with the [existing test] to see whether someone is having a dengue or a Zika infection,” da Silva said.

That makes it harder for researchers to actually confirm that a patient has Zika while they’re still sick. Instead, the best diagnosis is made using sensitive DNA-based testing; but that’s expensive and needs to be done in a lab.

UNC researcher Sylvia Becker-Dreps, who has been doing epidemiology research in Nicaragua for a decade, will be leading a collaboration between UNC and a university in that country to study Zika.

“Right now, it’s mostly a naîve population; they’re only starting to get their first cases, something between 300 and 600 cases detected in Nicaragua,” Becker-Dreps said.

The idea is to help the government with its response, but resources in that country are poor and Becker-Dreps said the ministry of health is only testing every tenth blood sample it receives.

She said one of the most important things to do is monitor what happens with pregnant women as the disease spreads across Nicaragua.

“The rainy season begins in May,” she said. “So the epidemic is only arriving now in Nicaragua. Then wait nine months and see.”

It’s important to understand what’s happening with Zika now, da Silva said, because inevitably the disease will make the jump to Asia, with its megacities of tens of millions of people.

“You have huge populations living in these large urban centers, millions and millions of people who are at risk of getting dengue, and those same populations are at risk of getting Zika,” he said.

Even if only a small proportion of pregnancies in Zika-infected women in those megacities end with babies having birth defects, it could still be tens of thousands of cases.

Staffing up

Closer to home, state public health officials are leveraging the publicity around Zika to beef up their surveillance and response capacity around bug-borne diseases.

North Carolina was one of the only states in the country to have a small cadre of entomologists, embedded in the Division of Public Health, to track mosquito-borne diseases and other diseases carried by bugs, known as “vector-borne” diseases.

But the vector-borne disease branch was eliminated during budget cutting in 2010 and 2011.

Now the Division of Public Health is looking for two entomologists, one to be based in Raleigh and the other to do fieldwork throughout the state, according to Danny Staley, who heads the division.

Essentially, that’s the same level of staffing as in the older program.

Staley said a number of counties, including New Hanover and Brunswick, have active vector-control programs. Those counties have historically been mosquito hot spots.

Staff go out, either in response to complaints or to known hot spots, he said, and look for birdbaths or containers with larvae.

Staley said spraying has fallen out of favor as the preferred method of mosquito control. Instead, public health interventions are more targeted: Teams go to hot spots, look for larvae, trace the feeding patterns of the mosquitoes and monitor what happens after they apply larvacide or drain waters.

“You can have three or four broods coming off of one container in a day,” Staley said.

He said the newly hired state-level entomologists will coordinate with local departments and will track what’s happening statewide to prepare for “new and novel viruses that are coming our way.”

“Last year, it was chikungunya; a few years earlier, it was West Nile virus,” Staley said.

As happens often in public health efforts, funds get cut when there’s no disease activity; then when there’s an outbreak, agencies scramble to rebuild.

“I will say that North Carolina is not unique in this situation,” Staley said. “In Florida and other states, there are similar situations; programs that were once very popular have faded.”

The entomologist job postings closed last week. Staley said the division is “aggressively” moving to get the new hires in place before North Carolina’s mosquitoes get active.

Distant Echoes of Slavery Affect Breast-feeding Attitudes of Black Women


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Black women have some of the lowest rates of breast-feeding. One midwife found some surprising reasons why that might be so.

By Rose Hoban

As certified nurse-midwife Stephanie Devane-Johnson works with her patients in Greensboro, she talks to them about a lot of health issues. But for her pregnant clients, one of the biggest topics is breast-feeding.

Stephanie Devane-Johnson headshot

Stephanie Devane-Johnson. Photo courtesy Central Carolina OB/GYN

“I’m asking about whether they’re going to breast-feed or bottle-feed,” Devane-Johnson said. “If they say they’re going to bottle feed, I say, “What about breast-feeding?’’

But to her frustration, for many black women breast-feeding their babies isn’t the first option.

National data show that only about 59 percent of black women breast-feed, compared to 79 percent of whites and 80 percent of Hispanic women. In North Carolina, those rates are even lower: Only about 44 percent of black mothers breast-feed.

This led Devane-Johnson to explore why more black women aren’t breast-feeding.

Some of the answers she found were surprising: The echoes of slave women being forced to give up their milk still resounded. And black women didn’t talk to their sisters, daughters and granddaughters about how to feed their babies; the bottle was just assumed.

And for some women, breast-feeding was a “white thing.”

Enduring taboos

As part of her research for a doctoral degree at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing, Devane-Johnson held focus groups to ask black women about breast-feeding. She presented her research at the annual UNC-Chapel Hill Minority Health Conference, held last week at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill.

A Civil War era print of an African American wet nurse.

A Civil War-era print of an African-American wet nurse.

Devane-Johnson described how she recruited 39 women ranging in age from 18 to 89 years old and asked them what conversations they’d had with family members.

Turns out, many hadn’t had conversations at all.

“In the formula-feeding group, it was just assumed,” she said.

She said some women who had breast-fed said it was a topic that couldn’t be addressed in their families.

“If they did breast-feed, they didn’t breast-feed at, say, their aunt’s house, [because] they would tell them, ‘You can’t do that in my house. Breast-feeding is nasty,’” Devane-Johnson said. “You don’t talk about ‘boobies,’ because breasts are sometimes seen as sexual and not as functional.”

And then there was the enduring legacy of slavery.

“There were some older black women who wanted to disassociate themselves from the past, from slavery and the wet-nursing,” she said, explaining that often young slave women were impressed into giving their milk to white infants.

“Grew up thinking breast-feeding was a white thing.” – focus group participant“That image of a ‘mammy’ when people would say that,” reads one of the quotes Devane-Johnson collected from her focus groups. “It did conjure up those pictures of the women feeding the white babies and all that.”

And the cultural memory had been passed down even to younger women.

“It really was amazing…. In my 18-to-29-year-old breast-feeding group, there was a young lady in there who said, ‘Yeah, the white men used to steal the slaves’ milk,’” she said.

Devane-Johnson explained that often slave women had to be away from their own children, at the cost of their own children’s lives.

An African American wet nurse, probably post-Civil War.

An African-American wet nurse, probably post-Civil War. Photo courtesy Maryland Historical Society

“A lot of slave babies died during slavery because they weren’t breast-fed. They were fed concoctions of dirty water and cows milk,” she said. Meanwhile, those children’s mothers were giving white children their milk.

And women reported that oral histories have been reinforced by modern technology.

“These pictures are all on social media,” Devane-Johnson said. “Then someone gets pregnant and people talk about breast-feeding. They’ll say, ‘You don’t have to do that anymore.’”

Teaching for change

There are also societal, economic and practical barriers to breast-feeding, Devane-Johnson said, things she’s working with her patients to change.

For starters, breast-feeding isn’t exactly easy, especially at first.

“When you have a sleep-deprived mom trying to breast-feed at three o’clock in the morning, and a matriarch at home is saying, ‘Get that out of that baby’s mouth and get that baby a bottle,’ it’s very enticing,” she said.

“There was an empowerment in being able to choose that bottle and not say I’m going to be sitting here with the baby attached to me.” – focus group participantBreast-feeding also can be something of a class issue, Devane-Johnson said. For some women, using formula was “empowering.”

“If you’re raised in your thought process, ‘I have a job, I can afford to formula-feed,’ to them breast-feeding is associated with being poor,” she said. “To some black women. Not to all, but to some.”

And using formula means a woman doesn’t have to be “tied down” to their baby.

Devane-Johnson said part of the solution is teaching women about how much healthier breast-fed babies are: Research shows they have lower rates of obesity, fewer colds and lower rates of diabetes later in life.

But there are also workplace barriers to breast-feeding. She said women need coaching to ask their supervisors about accommodations, which are required by state and federal law.

Marva Price, a black nurse who spent years teaching women to breast-feed, discussed how she’s helped women approach that discussion.

“They have to ask for that – if they can take time away,” Price said. “Can they take time away, can they even pump in their work space or go someplace and have a clean place, even a storeroom?”

She said that over the years she’s worked with patients to help them figure out what to do and how to negotiate with their bosses. Then there are logistical issues: a refrigerator to store the milk, a place to store the pump, a quiet, out-of-the-way place to pump.

“It takes a lot of support,” Price said.

NIEHS Looks for Higher Local Profile


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By Rose Hoban

If you have ever received an email from anyone at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the bottom of the email has a statement that starts, “Hopefully, you’ve heard of NIEHS, but if not …”

Brand recognition seems to be a problem for NIEHS, the only one of the National Institutes of Health located outside of the DC metropolitan area.

Environmental toxicologist Joel Meyer from Duke spoke about how genes in cells get disrupted, causing disease.

Environmental toxicologist Joel Meyer from Duke spoke at RTP 180 about how the DNA in cells gets disrupted, contributing to the development of disease. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

And, yes, NIEHS is located in North Carolina, in Research Triangle Park. It was actually the first large tenant in RTP, back in the ’60s.

NIEHS leader Linda Birnbaum is determined to raise the organization’s profile in this, its 50th anniversary year. She also wants to get her researchers out into the local community more.

“If you’re going to study the environment, you absolutely have to work with the community,” Birnbaum said at an event held last week.

Birnbaum had come to a monthly meeting of RTP 180, a social, networking and educational TED-like event held at The Frontier, a co-working and event space in RTP. She brought with her several NIEHS grantees to talk about their work.

“Several of our centers are at local universities,” Birnbaum said. Both UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke host Superfund Centers. N.C. State University hosts an environmental health center, and there are multiple grantees at universities throughout North Carolina.

“We spend almost $250 million a year in the local environment,” she said. “We’re a pretty well-kept secret.”

Getting the word out

But if the grantees Birnbaum had with her last week were any indication, NIEHS won’t be a secret for long.

N.C. State researcher Heather Patisaul had the crowd laughing along as she presented on what she’s learned from prairie voles, little mouse-like critters that are actually quite social.

There’s active recruitment in North Carolina for several studies, including the Body Weight and Puberty Study and a study on Bisphenol A exposure, both being conducted on the NIEHS campus in RTP. Patisaul explained how the voles mate for life and are more interested in hanging out with their mates than by themselves or with “an alluring stranger.” That’s more similar to humans than other rodents.

With help from NIEHS, she’s been able to look at the hormones in the voles similar to those in humans and has studied how those hormones get disrupted.

“We can study how a chemical like bisphenol A, or BPA, interacts with the brain and the nervous system to change behavior,” she said.

NIEHS grantee Heather Patisaul talked about how hormone response in prairie voles is similar to that in humans.

NIEHS grantee Heather Patisaul talked about how hormone response in prairie voles is similar to that in humans. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Another presenter, Dave Peden from UNC, grabbed attention with his description of exactly how air pollution damages the lungs.

Peden, who studies asthma, told the crowd that someone with asthma is more likely to have a delayed reaction to air pollution; attacks come a day or so after exposure. That realization is what led researchers to believe that inflammation is important.

“It takes awhile to make pus in your lungs. There’s an image for you.” he said as people audibly groaned. “If you inhale a particle, it takes awhile for your lungs to get annoyed with it.”

Peden said research shows, for example, that if people are worried about pollution, then exercising in the morning may be better than exercising in the afternoon if you exercise outside, because there’s less pollution in the morning.

“There are things that you do to protect yourself,” he said.

More to come

Event emcee Will Hardison said the 300-some people at last week’s event constituted one of the biggest crowds RTP 180 has attracted, so big that the event ran out of food and beer.

A standing room crowd came to last week's RTP 180 event to hear NIEHS grantees discuss their work, drink beer and eat burritos.

A standing-room crowd came to last week’s RTP 180 event to hear NIEHS grantees discuss their work, drink beer and eat burritos. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Afterwards, Peden said he thinks it’s important for scientists to get out and talk about their research in ways that are engaging to the public.

If that’s the case, Birnbaum may be calling  him again. The Institute is planning a series of events throughout 2016, from a screening of WALL-E at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh and Women’s Health Awareness Day events in Durham, both in April, to lectures and symposia scattered throughout the year.

“We’ll be having events all year,” Birnbaum said. “Some of the best ways for me to meet the community is to hold an open forum.”

Biden Urges Cancer Research Community to Aim High


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As part of President Obama’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, Vice President Joe Biden visited Duke yesterday.

By Rose Hoban

The future of cancer treatment is within reach. It just needs some rocket fuel.

That was the message given Wednesday by Vice President Joe Biden at Duke University, where he visited to boost President Barack Obama’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, announced during the State of the Union address in January.

Vice President Joe Biden came to Durham on Wednesday to talk to cancer researchers about ways to prevent and cure the disease. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Vice President Joe Biden came to Durham on Wednesday to talk to cancer researchers about ways to prevent and cure the disease. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In that speech, Obama tasked Biden with leading a  nationwide effort to accelerate efforts to find cures for the many forms of cancer. The initiative includes proposals for billions in additional dollars for the National Institutes of Health, with close to $200 million for the National Cancer Institute.

In 2015, Biden lost his 46-year-old son, Beau, to an aggressive form of brain cancer. He said the new initiative was “not his idea,” but when Obama approached him about leading the effort he said he jumped on it.

Biden also said he’s ready to make the fight against cancer a “major component of what I’m going to be doing with the rest of my life.”

During the nearly two-hour event, Biden discussed aspects of cancer research and treatment, barriers to care and what needs to happen to advance the science. He also took suggestions and input from researchers and patient advocates involved with cancer care throughout the Triangle.

“One area of consensus is that we really are at an inflection point,” Biden said about what he’s learned since starting work on the initiative. “I was stunned to learn how much has changed in the last five years.”

While Biden said several times that he was “not naive” about the difficulty of finding cures for the many forms of cancer, he also expressed optimism.

“The science is ready,” he said repeatedly.

Big data, big promise

By the end of Biden’s presentation, no one could doubt his enthusiasm for the potential of “big data” in cancer research and treatment. He used the phrase at least a dozen times to talk about genetic data, information on treatment responses and pharmaceutical knowledge being collected by cancer researchers.

Before the roundtable event, Biden toured labs at Duke and met with Nobel laureate Paul Modrich (left) and internationally known researcher Eugene Washington.

Before the round-table event, Biden toured labs at Duke and met with Nobel laureate Paul Modrich (left) and internationally renowned researcher Eugene Washington. Photo credit: Jeff Tiberii

“Big data” is the term used to refer to reams of information, which, on the surface, doesn’t reveal much. But once the data are aggregated with the assistance of sophisticated statistical analyses, researchers can pull revelations from the mountains of raw bits and bytes.

As an example, Biden talked about a recent study showing that women with ovarian cancer taking one type of blood pressure medication lived significantly longer than others with the same diagnosis who didn’t take that pill.

“The way that was found is comparing outcomes,” he said. “It’s something that never would have happened or been picked up by biology alone, or researchers working in silos, but it did get picked up because of data and computing advances and the ability to look across wide patient populations.”

He encouraged researchers, drug companies and academics to share information more freely about what works, urging pharmaceutical companies, in particular, to collaborate.

“Getting that done is like getting a nuclear deal with Iran,” he said to laughter from the crowd.

“We have to make sure the information is being shared so that oncologists in Fayetteville can access information from a world-class institution like Duke,” Biden said.

Getting treatment where it’s needed

“People of color, as with any other chronic illness, we fare worse,” Gayle Harris, Durham County’s health director, told Biden during the round-table portion of his visit. “Most of the times, our illnesses are detected far, too far, into the progression of the disease.”

And of the only 5 percent of patients who end up in clinical trials, few are minorities.

James Atkins, a researcher with the Southeast Clinical Oncology Research Consortium, made an emotional plea for easing access to clinical trials for oncologists outside academic research centers.

Clinical trials should be made available to any oncologist credentialed by the NCI, Atkins said, cutting off Biden’s response.

Vice President Biden listens to Durham County health director Gayle Harris as she talks about family members with cancer. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

During the round-table, Vice President Biden listens to Durham County health director Gayle Harris as she talks about family members with cancer. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“If somebody comes into my office today with a malignant tumor for which I do not have a clinical trial, but there is one at the government.com, I go ahead and access it; I download the forms off the Internet,” he said. “I fax it in, the drugs are shipped,”

“It doesn’t have to be as complicated as it is,” Atkins said.

Atkins also made specific suggestions about streamlining FDA audits, which drew murmurs of approval from the crowd.

“I’m going to ask you to be willing tomorrow to get on the phone with one of the docs in my operation and lay out in detail just what you said here,” Biden responded, telling him to be as specific as possible with his suggestions.

Cost: the final frontier?

Biden concentrated primarily on the science, but several observers noted one of the biggest barriers to cancer care is cost.

Harris recounted the story of a cousin who spent enormous amounts of money looking to cure a case of pancreatic cancer. She told of how the family exhausted treatment at three academic centers, to no avail, while also exhausting their savings.

“That wreaks havoc on a budget,” she said. “And they had the skills to navigate the system.”

That cost of care is what preoccupies Duke oncologist Yousef Zafar.

“We need to focus on how to get the right care to the right patient at the right time,” said Zafar, who did not attend the Biden presentation. “Part of getting the right care to patients involves understanding the cost of that treatment.”

“It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical debt for patients to feel the pinch,” he said.

Zafar said there’s evidence showing that out-of-pocket costs as little as $100 per month can induce cancer patients to stop life-prolonging treatment.

“Some patients might say, ‘I’d rather not have my family go into medical debt even if this therapy could extend my life,’” he said.

Deodorant Changed the Ecosystem of North Carolina Armpits


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North Carolina researchers are exploring the far reaches of … our belly buttons. And armpits.

By Laura Pellicer

They linger on your skin, burrow in your stomach and occupy every nook and cranny in your body: microorganisms – the bacteria, parasites and even viruses that make up your microbiome. It may sound unpleasant, but scientists are eagerly working to identify which microorganisms are in – and on – your body, as new connections emerge between these microscopic critters and your overall health.

North Carolinians are doing their part to contribute to this research. Dozens of residents, many recruited through the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, have stepped up to have their own bodies swabbed for science.

Julie Horvath, the head of the Genomics & Microbiology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, is exploring microbes that make up the human body. Photo by Laura Pellicer

Julie Horvath, head of the Genomics & Microbiology Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, is exploring microbes that make up the human body. Photo credit: Laura Pellicer

Julie Horvath, a comparative evolutionary genomicist with North Carolina Central University, is just one of the researchers across North Carolina who are working to answer the question of the relationship between microbial diversity and human health. But first she wants to find out just which microorganisms are making a home in your body.

Blank plates

For Horvath, this quest started with the armpit, and a collaboration with Rob Dunn, a biologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University who heads a project called Your Wild Life that explores the ecology of everyday life, including the biodiversity of your backyard, home and body.

“I said, ‘Let’s do the armpit! That sounds really gross and nasty but it’ll be engaging,’” Horvath recalled of the initial conversation with Dunn that sparked her latest microbiome research.

The researchers kicked off their armpit and belly button study by swabbing their own bodies and growing microbes from the swabs in the lab. Horvath’s belly button turned out to be an enigma.

“The other people in the lab all had things growing on their plates,” she said. “My plates were blank. And I got a little freaked out because I’m a scientist. You’re supposed to have microbes on your skin, and nothing’s growing on my plates?”

After a round of discussions with her fellow researchers, Horvath determined the antiperspirant she was using might be to blame.

Photo of three petri dishes with bacteria. Publicity image from the Rob Dunn's Belly Button Biodiversity project.

Publicity image from the Rob Dunn’s Belly Button Biodiversity project. Image courtesy Rob Dunn Lab, NC State University

“I had just gotten this job and didn’t like public speaking very much; it made me nervous. So I was wearing clinical strength antiperspirant. And so, potentially, when I would take a shower, it would wash down over my body, and so maybe it was getting in my belly button and that’s why nothing was growing in my belly button.”

From the colorful Genomics & Microbiology Research Lab that she heads, enclosed in the glass walls of North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences, Horvath got museum employees and a horde of volunteers to offer up their pits for science. The microbial denizens of those armpits are on display in an online gallery.

Researchers split the participants into three groups. One group wore antiperspirant, another deodorant and the third group was asked to forgo conventional pit protocol and ditch the products.

The results, published in the journal PeerJ, show the use of deodorant or antiperspirant has a strong effect on types of bacteria living on the surface of the skin. Participants who used product had significantly more staph (Staphylococcaceae) than Corynebacterium. Those who didn’t wear product had more Corynebacterium than staph. By wearing antiperspirant, these citizen scientists were also killing off microbes and lowering the bacterial density on the skin.

“The main point is the products you put on your skin can significantly change the abundance and composition of the microbes on your skin,” Horvath said. “If you look at some of the other primates, you see that they don’t have as much of the staph and Corynebacterium that we do. Potentially, humans have evolved for some reason to have a lot more staph and Corynebacterium, and maybe that’s partly due to the product use that we have.”

Armpit sweat to earwax

Horvath has now set her sights on the generally underappreciated realm of earwax, and is actively swabbing, recording and analyzing the white (or yellow) stuff with the hopes of determining whether certain earwax types harbor different microbes.

“We know microbes feed on your sweat. If you either produce a lot of sweat or wet earwax, versus if you don’t, do you have different microbes growing on you?” Horvath asks. “We know that a lot of these play a role in your health. Any microbes that live on your skin are going to play a role in your immune system.”

Despite her enthusiasm to probe the dark depths of ears and armpits for the sake of microbiome research, Horvath warns against throwing caution to the wind for the sake of microbiome diversity.

“You don’t want to just go advocate, ‘Hey, go roll in the dirt and don’t wash your hands!’ Because that’s what some people are getting at,“ she said.

“But I would say, think about what you’re putting on your body. We know antiperspirant and deodorant have an effect. We know antibacterial products have an effect. Try to limit your use of things you know are going to kill off good microbes. Because killing off your good microbes is potentially going to have negative consequences.”

Following the gut

Scientists who are plugging away at human microbiome research are eager to compare petri dishes of blossoming bacteria with samples from our closest living ancestors: primates.

Using behavioral data from chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania – the same group of chimps Jane Goodall and her team have been monitoring since 1960 – researchers at Duke University have discovered a key connection between socialization and the gut microbiome.

Cutline: Anne Pusey, the chair of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in her office at Duke University. Photo by Laura Pellicer

Anne Pusey, chair of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, in her office. Photo credit: Laura Pellicer

Anne Pusey, chair of Duke’s evolutionary anthropology department, is the keeper of this behavioral data. She heads a project to digitize all the information gathered on these chimpanzees in the field and is a contributing author on a recent study published in Science Magazine.

This new research highlights socialization as a factor for the diversity of gut microbes and complements a long-term study from Jenny Tung, an assistant professor of biology at Duke who found connections between the intermingling of wild baboons and the gut microbiome.

“In humans, [researchers] know about the microbiome being transferred from mother to baby during a normal birth but not during cesarean,” Pusey said.

Based on this principle, Pusey says a reasonable assumption is that related chimps would have a more similar gut microbiome than non-related chimps. But instead, she found chimpanzees who spent time interacting had similar gut microorganisms, independent of whether they were related.

“That suggests that there’s transfer going on between individuals in ways other than just by birth,” Pusey said.

Steffen Foerster, a senior research scientist in Duke’s department of evolutionary anthropology, developed models to study the complex social relationships between these chimpanzees.

“It’s very dynamic, much like in humans. As we move around our daily lives, we meet people, spend some time with them and then leave when we want to,” Foerster said.

By following a different chimpanzee each day, recording social interactions and collecting fecal samples, researchers determined that the level of gregariousness of the chimps correlated with the richness or diversity of their gut microbes.

So what implications does this have for humans? A key difference in human versus chimpanzee interaction is that people don’t swap fecal matter quite as readily as chimpanzees.

Two adult male chimpanzees at Gombe during a grooming session. This type of social interaction provides opportunities for the transmission of gut microbes. Photo by Steffen Foerster

Two adult male chimpanzees at Gombe during a grooming session. This type of social interaction provides opportunities for the transmission of gut microbes. Photo credit: Steffen Foerster

“When they’re together, they groom each other, they play, they mate and also they – because they’re near each other – they’re defecating and they’re walking around in the same areas where each other have defecated,” Pusey said.

But our modern battle against dirt, germs, bacteria, parasites and general foul smells may be a setback for a diverse human microbiome.

“What people are starting to realize is, not having anything to fight against is making our immune system fight against itself,” Foerster said. “This increased prevalence of autoimmune disease might have to do with not having to fight off these parasites.”

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