Fibroblasts are a cell type that are found throughout the human body; in your lungs, in your heart, below your skin. While there are a wide variety of fibroblasts, typically they are lumped together and regarded as a type of “biological glue” – there to hold everything together by providing components for the extracellular matrix, but not doing much else. However, a recent study at Monash University has proved that this is not entirely the case.
A Science Daily article describes the work of Dr. Milena Furtado, et. al. on cardiac fibroblasts. According to their study, cardiac fibroblasts are actually unique in their genetic makeup in a very significant way: they “remember” that they are specialized heart cells – the result of lingering transcription factors that are absent in other types of fibroblasts. These lingering transcription factors keep cardiogenic genes activated in these fibroblasts, which gives them the potential to contribute to heart development and repair.
This is very exciting, because it potentially offers a new way of treating heart disease. Evolutionarily, fibroblasts occur in a number of vertebrate species and perform very important roles in each of them. However, our understanding of how specialized the fibroblasts are or are not is fairly limited in a number of circumstances. The fact that we are just now discovering that cardiac fibroblasts have the ability to influence heart development and perhaps even more importantly the repair of heart tissue is a testament to this. But this study shows that there is potentially a lot can learn from systems like the fibroblasts, which could in turn have huge implications for the treatment of disease. In the case of heart disease, we currently have no knowledge of how to get the heart to repair itself. So if we could find a way to manipulate fibroblasts in order to get them to help with this process, it might reduce the need for heart transplants and provide a safer alternative to dealing with heart disease. Thus, while it not a guarantee of success, this study shows the importance of exploring new avenues and gaining new perspectives when studying disease.
A recent New York Times article describes a book that was released in Britain earlier this year and has started a new dieting craze in that part of the world. Titled “The Fast Diet”, this book describes a dieting plan that uses the idea of intermittent fasting: eating whatever you want (within reason) for 5 days of the week, then only eating two tiny meals a day during the other two. Co-author of the book Dr. Michael Mosley describes how, by following this regimen, he: lost 20 lbs., reduced his blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and reduced his body fat percentage. Many others have also claimed to have similar results, and this brings up the question of: why does this diet work so well?
Mosley mentions that the earliest ancestors of humans lived a feast-or-famine existence, gorging themselves when they had the chance and then going without until they were able to find another source of nourishment. The Fast Diet therefore is simply a return to our evolutionary roots, to the lifestyle that humans were adapted to prior to the introduction of agriculture. Additional support for this idea can be found in the fact that in times when the body does not have food to store, it turns its energies toward repair and recovery. If food came only periodically, then it makes sense that natural selection would favor individuals who put obtaining nutrients from food and storing them as a higher priority than performing comparatively insignificant repairs that could wait until later.
This idea of returning to our evolutionary roots is certainly an interesting idea, and Mosley and co. have demonstrated that their way has the potential to help improve human health in our modern society. However, there are also many other factors that play a role in how our diet affects our health. For instance, agriculture not only provided a more constant food supply but also changed the composition of what we eat. Our sugar and cholesterol rich diets have just as much, if not more, of a say in how much of how our diet affects us as the intervals in which we eat. So while The Fast Diet might be a step in the right direction, it should also be noted that there are many other factors that need to be accounted for in forming a healthy diet as well.
Considering it’s the last day of classes, I have been a little retrospective about our time this semester, and considering the importance of this course in general. I think it is great that this course is a part of Emory’s curriculum, and that many other universities are also adapting this kind of course in its biological education. What I found extremely exciting in terms of introducing Darwinian Medicine into undergraduate pre-medical education was how UCLA announced that since Fall 2013, they started Evolutionary Medicine as a minor for undergraduate students. This to me, is a great step forward for UCLA and a step towards the right direction for many other universities (such as ours) to follow in its footsteps.
Looking at the basic requirements, the minor would require 3 core classes:
1) Evolution, Ecology and Biodiversity
2) Intro to Ecology and Behavior
3) Evolutionary Medicine
Apart from that, there would be 4 to 5 courses chosen from an incredibly diverse array of classes. These range from anthropology and physiological science to Community Health and Sociology. Other areas of elective courses include genetics, philosophy, sociology, and social welfare. The minor also has a research or internship requirement for an additional semester.
What, to me, sets this minor apart from the other minors that I have seen, is first a class directly geared towards medical practice and framework, and second the vast array of disciplines the minor covers. We as a class have discovered that evolutionary medicine includes a plethora of disciplines but to see that students will truly experience this interdisciplinary education is truly exciting. What other minor/major can allow you to choose from 17 different disciplines? Emory, take note!
UCLA introduces new evolutionary medicine minor. (n.d.). Daily Bruin. Retrieved April 24, 2014, from http://dailybruin.com/2013/09/30/ucla-introduces-new-evolutionary-medicine-minor/
During my Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy class we talked about the future of medicine and one of the things they talked about that I found really cool was 3D printing. 3D printers are becoming more and more common and are starting to be used to create artificial limbs and organs. One of the things they mentioned that I found amazing was 3D printing a skull for a woman who suffered from a thickening of the skull. The doctors printed out a 3D skull and surgically replaced her thickening skull. This happened in the Netherlands about 3 months ago and I was absolutely amazed. I heard 3D printing can be used to create artificial limbs and even organs, but replacing a skull was new to me. The operation was a success and the woman is doing fine.
Another new technology that can be used for medicine is google glass. Google glass has suffered controversy because of privacy concerns and there’s no doubt that there are still concerns like this when it it used for medicine. The application of google glass for medicine include pulling up medical records, augmented reality in surgical settings and automated personal heath care. For augmented reality in surgical settings, surgeons can pull up a virtual overlay of the patient’s body to look at critical structures during surgery, thereby possibly reducing the rate of surgical errors. It can also be used as a teaching tool to show medical students what surgery looks like from the surgeon’s point of view. It can also be used to call up other medical experts for help during a surgery. Like I stated though, this technology does have drawbacks like privacy concerns and distracting the surgeon since they are essentially using one eye to see records during surgery.
Biology is usually seen as a respected science. It uses labs and scientific methods to understand how diseases work and are passed on, but biology can’t always find the exact reason for all illnesses. For example, cancer is caused by unregulated cell growth due to some sort of mutation. This is can be seen through DNA testing. But what about mental illnesses? These illnesses cannot always be described strictly by biology. Yes, it could be some sort of mutation or brain imbalanced, but it doesn’t take into consideration cognitive thinking and behaviors. It’s like the nature vs. nurture debate. For mental illnesses, I believe a combination of biology and psychology is important, and yet psychology isn’t even recognized as a science in some schools. You can’t even get a BS in psychology at Emory. I think psychology can be recognized as a treatment for illnesses. People do go to psychiatrists and/or psychologists for help and it does seems to help some people.