A community member at a blood pressure check-up
Avicenna Community Health Center
January 28, 2016

Avicenna Free Clinic Focuses On Healthy Living

Free and charitable clinics continue to play a vital role in Champaign County, where more than 12,500 people are without health insurance. Avicenna is one of four free clinics in Champaign-Urbana. By coupling traditional medicine with lifestyle management, their health care team aims to do more than just treat illnesses as they arise.

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November 19, 2013

U Of I Urbana Campus Preps For Smoking Ban

Officials at the University of Illinois Urbana campus are gearing up for a completely smoke-free campus, starting Jan. 1.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise sent out a campus-wide email Tuesday morning, outlining the scope of the ban. It will ban anyone from smoking on any campus-owned property, indoors or outdoors, even when in their cars.

In her email, Wise said the ban on all forms of burning tobacco --- from cigarettes to pipes and hookahs  --- will protect everyone on campus from the hazards of 2nd-hand smoke. But campus spokesperson Robin Kaler says e-cigarettes, which provide nicotine without the smoke, will be banned as well.

“There’s information, data that shows (e-cigarettes) may be addictive as well,” said Kaler. “Separating them out just creates a lot of confusion. If someone sees someone with one, they’re not sure if it’s a real cigarette.”

Kaler spoke Tuesday on WILL’s Focus. Chancellor Wise was the main guest in that program. She said violators will receive warnings during the initial period of the ban, but that tougher enforcement could come later on.

But Wise said the university will also offer several tobacco-cessation programs through its health services, and sell nicotine-replacement products at the Illini Union, the State Farm Center and the campus rec centers.

This micrograph shows a single mitochondrion (yellow), one of many little energy factories inside a cell.
(Keith R. Porter/Science Source)
October 09, 2013

Proposed Treatment To Fix Genetic Diseases Raising Ethics Issues

The federal government is considering whether to allow scientists to take a controversial step: make changes in some of the genetic material in a woman's egg that would be passed down through generations.

Mark Sauer of the Columbia University Medical Center, a member of one of two teams of U.S. scientists pursuing the research, calls the effort to prevent infants from getting devastating genetic diseases "noble." Sauer says the groups are hoping "to cure disease and to help women delivery healthy normal children."

But the research also raises a variety of concerns, including worries it could open the door to creating "designer babies." The Food and Drug Administration has scheduled an Oct. 22 hearing to consider the issues.

Specifically, the research would create an egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike the DNA that most people are familiar with — the 23 pairs of human chromosomes that program most of our body processes — mtDNA is the bit of genetic material inside mitochondria, living structures inside a cell that provide its energy.

Scientists estimate that one in every 200 women carries defects in her mtDNA. Between one in 2,000 and one in 4,000 babies may be born each year with syndromes caused by these genetic glitches; the syndromes range from mild to severe. In many cases, there is no treatment and the affected child dies early in life.

Lori Martin, 33, of Houston, found out her son, Will, was born with the mitochondrial disease known as Leigh's syndrome, when he was about two years old.

"The experience of being told that your son is basically going to die and you don't know when or how — it's obviously life-changing and it completely wrecks your world," Martin says.

Martin and her husband are trying to help Will live as long and as happy a life as they can. And they want more kids. But her doctor advised against it.

"Since I am a carrier, I've been told it's recommended I do not have any more biological children using my eggs," Martin says. "It's a really devastating blow to be told not to have more children."

The proposed research might help Martin and women like her.

"We have developed a technique that would allow a woman to have a child that is not affected by this disease and yet the child would be related to her genetically," says Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Here's how the procedure would work: Doctors take eggs from women like Martin and pluck out all the genes except for the mtDNA. They then do the same thing to eggs that have been donated by women with healthy mtDNA.

"The DNA of a woman who wants to have the child is transferred into that healthy egg," Egli says. "And now you have an egg with DNA of the woman who wants to have the child, [and it also contains] healthy mitochondrial DNA."

The new egg could then be fertilized in the laboratory with the would-be father's sperm. And the resulting embryo could be transferred into the would-be mother's womb.

A team of scientists in Oregon has already made human embryos this way and even succeeded in breeding healthy baby monkeys using the techniques. Now they and the New York research group want to take the next step: They want to try to make healthy human babies.

"We're ready to move on to the next stage and to transplant the embryos we have created this way into a patient," says Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

And it looks likely that the British government will allow medical researchers in that country try a related technique to replace the faulty mtDNA in eggs from women like Martin.

But this is all still very controversial. First of all, the baby would be born with genes from three different people: from the father, from the woman trying to have a healthy baby and from the woman who donated the healthy egg.

"There are issues of identity that the child may experience later in life," says Ronald Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College. "'Who am I? Am I a human being like all other human beings with two parents? Am I some type of new type of creature?' "

There are even bigger concerns, which start with whether the technique is safe for the resulting infant, and whether by trying to fix one problem, scientists may inadvertently introduce mistakes into the human genetic code.

"If mistakes are made, they won't just be mistakes in the child that is born. But if that child [is a girl and] has children down the line, those children will inherit the mitochondria from that child and we'll have introduced new genetic diseases into the human population," Green says.

That's why this sort of thing has always been off-limits — even banned in many countries, according to Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

Pursuing such techniques, Darnovsky says, "really would cross this bright line that's been established and has been observed by scientists around the world. And that bright line says: 'We're not going to make genetic changes that are inheritable — that are passed down from one generation to the next.' "

And there's another big reason for that bright line, beyond fears of introducing errors into the gene pool. The big concern is that altering mtDNA eventually could lead to someone trying to make designer babies.

"The problem is that once we start saying, 'We're going to allow inheritable genetic changes to make healthier children,' then the next step is, 'We're going to allow these kinds of genetic engineering experiments to make children who are more intelligent or more athletic or have perfect pitch,' " Darnovsky says.

Now, the scientists who want to do this say they're nowhere near being able to do anything like that. And all their research so far indicates the procedure they propose is safe.

"Abuses in medicine can occur and they do," Sauer says. But that's not what this is about."

For her part, Martin hopes the research keeps going. It may be too late for her. But it may help other women like her, such as her younger sister.

"Any woman would love to be able to create a baby of [her] own," Martin says. "Having that kind of gift would be — it's a priceless gift to us. So I would hope that it would be an option for our family."


October 04, 2013

Illinois Gets Money To Continue WIC

Illinois state officials say the Women, Infants and Children program or WIC will continue despite the partial shutdown of the federal government.

The Illinois Department of Human Services said on Friday that it received contingency funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, allowing WIC services to continue through the end of the month.

Brandon Moline oversees the WIC program with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. He said on average, more than 4,000 and people in Champaign County rely on the WIC program.

“New clients are welcome to come in and register and enroll, and we will continue to issue vouchers as we normally do," Moline said. "So, people that would enroll for example this week or next would get vouchers for the month of October that they would be able to redeem immediately.”

Moline said if the government shutdown doesn’t end in a month, then food dollars will likely dry up, preventing people from redeeming food vouchers. He said staff furloughs would likely follow.

Statewide, there are about 280,000 people participating in the WIC program.

Fourth year Tulane medical school student Neha Solanki (far right) preps a Greek frittata during a class at Johnson & Wales.
(Kristin Gourlay/ RIPR)
September 18, 2013

Just What The Doctor Ordered: Med Students Team With Chefs

For the past few weeks, the culinary arts students at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., have been working with some less-than-seasoned sous chefs.

One of them, Clinton Piper, may look like a pro in his chef's whites, but he's struggling to work a whisk through some batter. "I know nothing about baking," he says.

Luckily, he's got other qualifications. Piper is a fourth-year medical student at Tulane University School of Medicine, and he's here for a short rotation through a new program designed to educate med students and chefs-in-training about nutrition.

"I think it's forward thinking to start to see, to view food as medicine," he says. "That's not something that's really on our radar in medical education. But with the burden of disease in the United States being so heavily weighted with lifestyle disease, I think it's a very, very logical next step."

So-called lifestyle diseases mainly spring from bad habits, particularly bad eating habits. Think obesity or diabetes. Piper says the goal of this partnership between New Orleans, Louisiana-based Tulane and Johnson & Wales is to change the way doctors think about food. As far as the program's creators know, it's the first time a culinary school and a medical school have partnered like this.

"We basically learn how to take care of patients when things go wrong, which is sad," says Neha Solanki, a fourth-year medical student at Tulane. "I think that we need to learn how to be able to make nutritious meals and to discuss diet in an educated manner."

One of their assignments is to feed the Johnson & Wales track team. The team will arrive breathless and sweaty after practice. According to assistant professor Todd Seyfarth, an instructor in culinary nutrition, the assignment is to create a "recovery meal."

"We're going to try to take advantage of what's called an anabolic window, a specific period of time after the workout where we can give them the best gains," he says.

The first course will be a "recovery" bar with whole grains, spices and marshmallows to deliver some quick sugars. Then there's the frittata that Solanki is laboring away at, stuffed with baby zucchini, red bliss potatoes, red bell peppers, parmesan and feta cheese and spinach. It's a feast, says culinary student Briana Colacone, designed to refuel with lean protein and carbs. "It's going to be really good," she says.

Using med students as sous chefs brings its own challenges — Colacone has to slow down to show med student Neha Solanki how to chop a pepper. But Seyfarth says the benefits far outweigh any inconveniences.

"They have a better understanding than I ever will of how the body functions. And they can inform some of the decisions we make," he says. "I love having them here."

This is the culinary medicine program's inaugural year. But organizers hope to train more Tulane medical students and Johnson & Wales culinary students together on each other's campuses.


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