Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holiday ode to theobromine

Molecule of theobromine

When holiday times start getting you down… theobromine.
Pick yourself up with a quick fix… theobromine.
You might just fall in love with this season… theobromine.
Against all odds and all reason… theobromine.

Its botanical origins discovered by our friends to the south… theobromine.
Well before the first Christmas ever existed… theobromine.
Why on earth do we consume such a bitter magical potion… theobromine.
It’s elementary, my dear Crick and dear Watson

Theobromine, theobromine.  Your magical, mystical powers make my heart sing.  You make me feel good and give my mind focus.  You suppress coughs, relax airways, and tame inflammation. Your pharmacology truly works wonders for me… but only in small doses, you see.

Cocoa beans - Image source:
Who on earth figured out how to get it?!… theobromine.
The beans of cacao – we collect it, ferment it; we dry it and roast it… theobromine.
But, it’s still not ready for consumption after all that… theobromine.
We grind it and press it, then send it off to make chocolate… theobromine.

Our friends in Europe perfected a most laborious art… theobromine.
Some like it dark, some like it light, some raise a glass for a toast… theobromine.
Give it some sweetness, give it some flavor… theobromine.
The possible culinary combinations seem endless… theobromine.

A final chocolate product.  Darker chocolate = more theobromine.  Image source:

Theobromine, theobromine.  Your magical, mystical powers make my heart sing.  You make me feel good and give my mind focus.  You suppress coughs, relax airways, and tame inflammation. Your pharmacology truly works wonders for me… but only in small doses, you see.

So holiday times getting you down just a bit?
Endless cooking, and cleaning, and holiday shopping draining your spirit?
Take a short moment, a deep breath, along with two, maybe more, pieces of chocolate.
Close your eyes, soak it in, and thank the Lord for this blessing… theobromine.

Monday, December 9, 2013

If food allergy deaths in food-allergic individuals are rare, do we change our ways?

This is a follow up post to 1 reason I despise science headlines.  It is in response to the recent press-coverage of Incidence of fatal food anaphylaxis in people with food allergy: a systematic review and meta-analysis  published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy.

After a week of thought, I am content that a group of researchers attempted such a risk assessment given the existing literature, i.e. what is the risk to a population of food allergic individuals dying from an allergic reaction to food.  There is a real need for good, hard statistics to put things into perspective.  What I am unsure of is whether this study warranted the press coverage that it has received.  As discussed in my first post, there is a huge range of error surrounding their identified risk of death - 1.81 deaths per million food allergic individuals per year (with a statistical error that gives a 95% chance that the true value falls between 0.94 and 3.45 deaths per million assuming no bias).  However, there are real issues of possible bias, which includes but is not limited to possible medical coding errors surrounding death due to anaphylaxis and pinning down the true prevalence of food allergy.  This at least is a first attempt at systematic review/meta-analysis and certainly warrants more powerful studies to hone in on the true value with better accuracy and precision.  The bottom line is that even with obvious known flaws in their acquired value, it is very unlikely that the risk of food allergic individuals across the food allergic population dying from their food allergy will trump the risk we all face from accidental death.  The number of U.S. deaths due to accidental death is reported as 391 per million per year, according to the CDC.  The study authors certainly have noble intentions of this study reducing the anxiety faced by food allergic individuals or their caregivers.  Senior author, Dr. Robert J. Boyle, a pediatric allergy specialist at Imperial College London is quoted in a New York Times blog, “It’s a matter of not letting food allergy rule your or your child’s life.  The risk is surprisingly low. You still have to take precautions, but I think it’s important to see it in context.”
What I've been grappling with personally is - does this study reduce my anxiety level?  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

1 reason I despise science headlines

For a week now, I've been pondering an article I came across in ScienceDaily - Dying from Food Allergy Less Likely Than Being Murdered.  As all good headlines should do, they grab the reader's attention and make you want to read more... MORE!  As a parent of a severely food allergic child, this headline certainly grabbed my attention and elicited a most visceral response - how dare they minimize our daily struggle and fear to prevent a life-threatening reaction (anaphylaxis) by comparing it to something completely unrelated (like murder?!)!  After an eye roll so large that I thought my eyeballs would permanently cramp at the top of their sockets, I opted to let the emotion settle a bit and break this down further.  Clearly, I'm biased, but I needed time to analyze this while recognizing my own biases to see if there is indeed merit to the article and the original peer-reviewed article it is based upon.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bone marrow transplants to cure food allergies?

Let me get this out of the way from the get-go, bone marrow transplants (BMTs) to cure food allergies are not really a question up for debate - this is NOT a good treatment option for your typical food allergic individual. There I've said it - the disappointing part. More on WHY I say this further in the post where I will discuss exactly what a BMT is. Let's just say the potential life-threatening risks of a BMT (among a few other factors, such as cost) far outweigh the potential benefits of a food allergy cure - even for those of us dealing with the risk of life-threatening anaphylaxis.

So where did this business of BMTs curing food allergies even come from? This week, clinicians presented a case-study at the annual #ACAAI (American College of Asthma Allergy and Immunology) scientific meeting, that a 10-year-old boy with both leukemia and a life-threatening peanut allergy was likely cured of his peanut allergy following a BMT to treat his leukemia (Link to press coverage of the case study) [1]. First off, I cannot even imagine dealing with a life-threatening food allergy and then discovering cancer on top it. Needless to say, this family has endured a lot. The really good news is that as far as I can read in the scientific abstract from the meeting, the boy is cancer-free and peanut-allergy free! Below I am giving you the details that are given in the abstract, which inquiring minds may want to know (Meeting abstracts are published in the 2013 November Supplement to the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology).


Friday, November 8, 2013

Food Allergy Bloggers Conference Wrap-up: Genius Loves Company

It has been over 4 days since I returned from warm, sunny Las Vegas and the first ever Food Allergy Bloggers Conference, belovedly going by #FABlogCon on Twitter.  Last Friday, I assumed that I would publish a wrap-up post on the blog by Wednesday.  Boy was I wrong!  I've been grappling for days now, how to put this event into the words that even begins to give it the justice it deserves.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Exciting times - guest post and food allergy bloggers conference!

So much exciting news to share:

Yesterday, a piece that I authored was published on the ever so resourceful, insightful, and evidence-based website, Asthma Allergies Children with editor in chief, Henry Ehrlich.  I am honored and humbled to be included among the distinguished individuals in the allergy community contributing to this website.  Go check it out!  It just may make you think twice about the long arduous process of science and what "negative" results in science mean.  I also want to thank Dr. Xiu-Min Li, a highly talented, passionate, and extremely caring food allergy scientist/clinician for taking the time to make this piece possible!

In other news: What happens in Vegas, won't stay in Vegas!

I will be attending the first ever Food Allergy Blogger Conference in Las Vegas (Nov. 2 - Nov. 4)!  This was a labor of love by two food allergy bloggers themselves, Jenny at Multiple Food Allergy Help and Homa at Oh Mah Deeness.  The list of speakers and attendees is extraordinary, and I wish that everyone out there could be in attendance.  Since this isn't the case, why not use modern technology to "be there."  I will be using Twitter (along with many other bloggers!) to live tweet conference details.  Selena at Amazing and Atopic wrote a fabulous, visual post explaining how you can get updates from all the bloggers tweeting the conference.  In addition, it contains all of those tweets embedded in a post that is live updating on her blog.  If you aren't a fan of twitter, you can check out her blog throughout the conference and see the live tweets!

If you are not familiar with Twitter but would consider getting an account, it involves all those #(insert favorite word/phrase here) pervading our culture (thank you Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon).  In this case, #FABlogCon will be used!  You can search for #FABlogCon or click on it at any time, and you will see all tweets from anyone using this "hashtag" even if you do not follow them on Twitter!  I signed up for Twitter last winter (against every fiber of my being) because of live tweets from the #AAAAI conference - @FdAllergySleuth.  It really was cool to see all the live tweets of cutting edge scientific findings coming from conference attendees.  I was finally convinced that , yes, Twitter does have a purpose after all! 

Oh and last, but not least - a huge shout out to my family and amazing husband/partner in crime for making this possible.  Traveling or leaving family behind while dealing with life-threatening food allergies (and two small children!) can be stressful to say the least. 

See you all soon - whether you are in Vegas or on Twitter!


Friday, October 18, 2013

Halloween - 2013 Edition

Halloween is filled with all kinds of emotions when dealing with life-threatening food allergies!
I'm so proud of myself.  Halloween is still 2 weeks away and safe allergy friendly treats are ordered, set to be delivered at our doorstep any day now.  In years past, it usually escaped my mind until the week before (too late to order), resulting in a mad dash to multiple stores to purchase whatever safe treats or toys we could find.  For our multiple food allergic child, this typically means trading unsafe treats for safe chocolate chips or small toys such as stickers, erasers, and pencils.  (Note - corn and soy are really big problems for us. I have yet to find standard nut-free/peanut-free brands that are also free of corn and soy, among others).  For some reason, I am afraid that he will be less than thrilled about safe chocolate chips yet again.  He is gaining awareness of his allergy predicament, which is a double-edged sword.  Good in that he is beginning to advocate for himself.  Bad in that he's socially and emotionally older, meaning he's becoming fully aware that he is "different" when all he really wants to do is "fit in."  Chocolate chips just aren't going to cut it anymore when all of his friends are getting those delicious looking, nose-pleasing aromas of chocolate and sugar all wrapped up in pretty colored packages.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Sanctity of Science

As the years go by, I grow more and more convinced that the scientific process is a perfect process for its intended purpose - to test ideas in order to explain how natural phenomena work in the realm of space and time.  Natural phenomena can range from at one end - the known universe - to at the other end - the seemingly infinitesimally small Higg's boson (aka - God particle).  At either of those extreme ends of natural phenomena, questions of science often meet the philosophical - e.g. was there a BEFORE the big bang? Most of us, however, reside somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  Even in the in between, there is still so much we have to learn - about ourselves, about our world.  I believe the wonder, awe, and beauty of the unknown will always be a part of our existence because it is central to being human to question, wonder, and desire to know.  I have yet to meet a person without these traits. I have to agree with a recent incredibly thought-provoking interview of Richard Dawkins on the Daily Show that this curiosity just may lead to humanity's demise (Really, watch it.  It's fascinating).  Yes, I agree that how certain humans will choose to use our accumulated knowledge will likely destroy us long before our use of the scientific process has a fighting chance of coming anywhere near understanding all there is to understand.  Like an addiction to a bad drug, we can't stop our craving for knowledge.  And I know we never will; I hope we never will.  We need solutions to humanity's problems like food allergies, and understanding the problems should go a long way in helping us fix the problems.

Whew, that was deep!  I hope you don't mind my random musings (the best thing about a personal blog, in my opinion!)  But, back to what I really wanted to discuss - the scientific process in all its perfect glory.  The process is perfect.  Humans are not.  Therefore, how humans use this process is inherently imperfect.  The steps - observation, question, hypothesis, test the hypothesis (experiment), analyze the data, conclude - gets repeated over and over and over... it's like an upward spiral staircase continuously climbing higher in our knowledge.  Any wrong ideas (hypotheses) will eventually be uncovered through experimentation.  This is the beauty of the scientific process - it self corrects our wrong ideas.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Genetic glitch at the root of food allergies?

I see a lot of different research articles on a weekly basis, and there is certainly a lot to be excited about in the realm of basic science research when it comes to understanding the immune system and allergic disorders.  I have to admit, though, a recent study published in Science Translational Medicine has my head spinning (in a good way!), and I hope this post accurately communicates why.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Science Fun - It's Electric!

Whether we are destined to become scientists or not, understanding the scientific process is crucial to our ever growing complex world.  Think about all of the articles that report scientific findings on food allergy alone - how do you separate the wheat from all the chaff in how science gets reported?  Understanding the process will go a long way in discerning claims that are truly supported by evidence versus the many over-sold or outright unsupported claims frequenting our online communities.

As an introductory-level college biology instructor, I'm seeing way too many students coming into my classroom lacking a basic understanding of the scientific method - i.e. how do scientists make the discoveries versus what is established scientific knowledge.  For too long, curriculum has focused on what I like to call "biology history" as opposed to "doing biology."  Yes, you need to know a good amount of the "history" to get to the bleeding edge, but the scientific process can and should be integrated all along the way.  There is hope that things are changing (Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education:  A Call to Action).
“Appreciating the scientific process can be even more important than knowing scientific facts. People often encounter claims that something is scientifically known. If they understand how science generates and assesses evidence bearing on these claims, they possess analytical methods and critical thinking skills that are relevant to a wide variety of facts and concepts and can be used in a wide variety of contexts.”
-National Science Foundation, Science and Technology Indicators, 2008.
In other words, teach a man to fish instead of giving him a fish. There is just too much new knowledge being generated for any human to keep up.  I strongly believe that an understanding of the scientific method begins many, many, MANY years before getting into undergraduate level science courses.  It begins in childhood.  I have to say, I'm encouraged by what I'm seeing in children's programming - in one of JR's favorite shows, The Dinosaur Train on PBS, one of the characters, Buddy, routinely shouts, "I have a hypothesis!"  As a result, JR routinely goes around the house shouting, "I have a hypothesis!"  (Hypothesis = educated guess to explain observation).  Sweet, beautiful music to this Mom's (and Dad's!) ears.  The seeds of scientific understanding are being planted.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer morning thoughts digging their way out

I find myself digging out from under a pile of the previous Spring term which ended last week.  Remnants of everything important - from tiny hand prints artfully crafted on special Mother's Day paper awaiting a more permanent framed display, to the last edition of Allergic Living, to stacks (and I mean STACKS!) of fascinating allergy/immunology papers awaiting meticulous consideration.

Crouching down on one knee with a small grin, I pump my fist and quietly exclaim, "Yes!  I made it.  I made it to summer."  It was a busy term, but worth it in every sense.  I have an appreciation of the microbial world that I did not have before, and suddenly pieces of complicated immunology literature that reference "bacterial things" like LPS and teichoic acid and how it relates to our immune system make perfect sense (at least more than it did). 

Our immune system is fine-tuned to recognize components of bacterial cell membranes/cell walls that we don't have in our cells (e.g. teichoic acid and lipopolysaccharide - LPS).  Source:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Schooled

In my continuing blog series, (Mis)adventures in Microbiology, I want to share the next leg of my journey into understanding the critters living on and within us.  I promise, this is related to allergy, so bear with me while I convince you that yes, there is a definite reason behind this microbiology madness.  You are reading an allergy blog, after all!

As the title implies, I'm getting schooled!  For the Spring term, I signed up for a course in Microbiology, which means I'm sharing a classroom with some of the very students I could have taught anatomy and physiology to in previous terms! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Allergy Advocacy - On the Oregon Trail

In this post, I'm taking a break from the science and jumping on the allergy advocacy band "wagon"  (any 80's children may recognize my attempts at pun, playing off the beloved game, Oregon Trail - ha!).  I, in no way, consider myself well-versed in this endeavor, but because it is THAT important to me, here is my attempt to get you on the allergy advocacy bandwagon, too (come on, I want to see all of us successfully reach the end of the Oregon Trail, which happens to be the good 'ole Willamette Valley)!  In all seriousness though, many states have passed or are currently in the midst of legislation for stock epinephrine and their associated guidelines in schools.  What this means is that all schools, by law, would have on hand, unassigned epinephrine auto-injectors in the event of a life-threatening, anaphylactic allergic reaction.  

Why is this important?

It will save lives.  Currently, the best medication capable of counteracting anaphylaxis is injectable epinephrine.  For those of us well-versed in living with the threat of life-threatening allergies, we carry epinephrine auto-injectors wherever we go.  A trip to the grocery store - yup, got our epinephrine.  Short walk in the neighborhood on a lovely spring day - epinephrine is along for a stroll.  Anaphylaxis can happen in minutes, and time is of the essence in order to stop anaphylaxis.  Full recovery from these reactions is associated with receiving epinephrine as soon as anaphylaxis is recognized.  Fatalities from anaphylaxis occur most often when epinephrine was not administered or it was administered too late.  What this means practically is that if a reaction happens at school, waiting for emergency responders to arrive in order to administer epinephrine may be too late to reverse the reaction.

For schools, it means that epinephrine must be readily available if and when a reaction occurs.  In addition, there must be several school staff capable of administering epinephrine (not just the school nurse, but teachers, cafeteria monitors, bus drivers, etc.).  Not only will this protect children with known food allergies, but it will protect children with unrealized allergies whether it is a bee sting on the playground or a food in the school cafeteria at lunch (yes, food allergies can develop at any time without warning, even to foods that have previously been consumed without incident!).

The thing is, just having unassigned epinephrine in schools does not go far enough.  There are so many considerations of how this actually gets implemented - the "guidelines" or rules and regulations, if you will.  Not only are the guidelines important for how schools handle stock epinephrine, but they are critical for those children who have prescribed epinephrine.  By many personal accounts, how prescribed epinephrine is handled in schools has often been left to the discretion of the schools.  On the ground, this means that often times, a child's auto-injector may be locked away in a drawer in the nurse's office, where other prescribed medications are located.  However, is this really the best place if a life threatening reaction happens on a playground?  What if the nurse is away and unfamiliar faculty/staff are left fumbling for keys to unlock a drawer?  Guidelines for where prescribed epinephrine is located (e.g. on the child or in his/her classroom) and who can administer without fear of repercussions (good samaritan laws) would eliminate confusion, angst, and worry for everyone - parents, teachers, nurses, principals, administrators, children ... 

What is happening in Oregon?

I'm happy to report that two bills are currently in the works.

SB611 - Allows access to unassigned epinephrine auto-injectors in schools and directs the State Board of Education (SBE) to establish rules and guidelines that schools must follow for using unassigned epinephrine.  It will also have the SBE establish rules and guidelines for students known to have life-threatening food allergies.
(As of 4/16/13 - passed the Senate.  House needs to vote yet)

HB2749 - Requires that school district boards allow certain medications, such as epinephrine auto-injectors, be kept in a student's classrooms if requested by a parent/guardian.  It also mandates that a certain number of individuals in a school must be trained to administer epinephrine.
(As of 4/16/13 - still in committee, has not been voted on yet).

If you live in Oregon, take action!

These bills are still in progress.  If you support these bills, contact your state representative and state senator as soon as possible (Link to find out who they are, if you do not know).  In addition, you may directly email/phone the members on the house education committee (HB2749, since it is still in committee and has not been up for vote yet).  Just as a note, I am super impressed with committee chair, Representative Sara Gesler!  She sent me a direct message within hours of my email, filling me in on the status of HB2749!  Thank you, Rep Gesler!

Our work is not done - questions remain

These bills are a step in the right direction.  Major questions/concerns that I have surround SB611.  Based on the wording, I interpret it to mean that schools may choose to get unassigned epinephrine, but it is not a required by law?  In addition, the guidelines surrounding epinephrine and how life-threatening food allergies are handled are not written into law per se, but are left up to the State Board of Education to decide.  If this bill passes, what will those rules be?  How can as many voices be heard when the SBE drafts these rules and guidelines?  Presumably if HB2749 passes, then that law would be integrated into the SBE guidelines?  Please feel free to comment below with your interpretations and what further action we, the allergy community can do to have our government work for us!  All-in-all, I'm very optimistic!

Further resources

I am grateful for The Grateful Foodie.  She currently is blogging about the in progress work to get stock epinephrine in Nevada schools.  I just love how she brings the mysterious governmental processes to life and makes it feel like any of us, no matter who we are, can be advocates!

Thank you AllergyHome for providing a map of where current laws exist!  These can be a model for states that do not currently have laws on stock epinephrine.

Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.  Fantastic resources on advocacy by one of the oldest and well-respected non-profit organizations supporting our community.

Put it on the calendar (I am!!):  Kids with Food Allergies Foundation is putting on a free webinar (April 30 11-12 pm PST) on getting unassigned epinephrine in schools!  I can't wait to hear this because I have a feeling they are going to lay it all down on what should be in legislation and how we can go about making it happen!      

Finally:  Here is a link to the letter I drafted a few days ago.  Feel free to use it as a guide if you need help getting started with your own letter.  Please know that it does not need to be as detailed or long as mine, but let your personal story be heard and why you think the law should be a certain way.  Our state reps and senators will hear you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

(Mis)adventures in Microbiology!

I naturally get excited about many things biological, which inevitably leads to chasing multiple lines of research down the proverbial rabbit hole, and ultimately biting off way more than I can chew most of the time.  There just aren't enough hours in the day to learn and share all that I want to with the world-wide web, while still managing to spend quality time with my family, attend to my teaching duties, and also squeeze in adequate sleep and perhaps a side of physical activity.  I'm sure many out there can relate.

However, there is an emerging view in human health and disease that keeps popping up time and again (probably daily by my anecdotal observations) and I can't pass up the opportunity to share more on the blog about it.  What is "it" you might ask?  Drum roll, please... the human microbiome!

The human microbiome is basically the collection of all the other microbial "critters" (bacteria, fungi, etc.) that are living on and in our bodies.  In fact it is estimated that the number of microbial cells on and in our bodies outnumber our own human cells ten to one!
One reason that microbes outnumber human cells is that bacteria are so much smaller than our cells!
In many ways, our bodies can be thought of as ecosystems where many other species of microbial organisms are living in a delicate balance.  The crazy thing is that since the discovery of microbes, the focus has been almost entirely on those few microbes that cause disease - aka - the pathogens.  It can't be overstated that this view of the world has truly revolutionized humanity.  We now understand the major culprits behind microbial killer diseases; we have learned to control many of them (for now!); and as a result, life-expectancy over the last century improved dramatically compared to human history prior to that point.  Our own bias, including the scientists studying these things, means we tend to focus on those things which negatively impact us - e.g. a strep throat infection truly sucks, therefore we think bacteria are the enemy.  But, times they are a changing... most people have heard of probiotics, right?  One tangible result of this is all the major yogurt companies jumping on the "good" bacteria bandwagon.  In reality, most of what is living on and in us are not pathogens under normal circumstances, and the harmless critters on and in us, may be just as important to our health as avoiding all the nasty pathogenic ones.

The thing is, we understand very little about these ecosystems on and within us.  Enter, the human microbiome project, a big project funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health to characterize the communities on and within.  What is normal?  Are there different ecosystems associated with human disease (e.g. not just one pathogenic "bad" guy model)?  The human microbiome project aims to answer these questions.

 Just like ecosystems in the "macro" world (think of a forest), our own little ecosystems likely abide by the same rules.  Growing up in rural Illinois, I distinctly remember a bit of a deer problem (Oh, deer!).  Disrupt what was once a stable ecosystem by driving out the natural predators of deer, and with plenty of food available, those deer bred like rabbits!  Is it possible we're breeding microbial "rabbits" in our own little ecosystems, and what would be the implications of that?  The problem is, we don't understand our own ecosystems enough to answer those questions.  It will be fascinating to see the data coming from the human microbiome project over the next few years!

Let's just say there is a lot of complexity going on here, and there is likely a link to allergy, so stay tuned for future posts!  You'll truly be learning it with me because microbiology is definitely out of my human anatomy and physiology comfort zone!

Further reading:

Germs are us by Michael Specter in the New Yorker. 
        Excellent overview of the human microbiome, written in a very understandable way.

 Red meat + wrong bacteria = bad news for hearts by Chris Woosten at Nature.
        One of my interesting finds today, suggesting our microbes contribute to heart disease. 


Friday, March 15, 2013

Check out My Guest Post for Asthma, Allergies, Children!

I am very honored to have authored a guest post for the website, Asthma Allergies Children, which is the web-resource component to the book by Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Dr. Larry Chiaramonte, and Henry Ehrlich.

If you have not checked out this website, it is a fantastic resource.

Here is Part 1 of 2.

Update on Friday, March 22:
Part 2 of 2 is now published.  Check it out.  Thank you again to Asthma Allergies Children!  

I hope it encourages much thought and discussion.  Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Science fun- going buggy!

It's been a busy week and let's face it - the last several posts verge on the rather deep.  So, because I'm a scientist, an educator, and a Mom to a food allergic child, I've decided to start a new little series on the blog aimed at fun, simple science experiments you can do with your food allergic child to inspire all the little future Einsteins and Curies out there!  Oh, and if you're an adult who does not happen to have a child, by all means, let your inner curiosity that is itching to get out (I hope not literally) and share with the little scientists in your life, whether it is niece, nephew, or family friend!

Have I mentioned that I love science?!  Have I mentioned that I love fostering the science in all of us?!  My poor children are probably doomed to all things geek-dom and I couldn't be any prouder.  Science rocks!  As humans, we are constantly striving to understand the world around us, and I strongly believe we are all born with an innate scientific ability that gets squashed for way too many of us as we get more "educated." 
Image source:

Alright, I'll get off my little soapbox, and get to the first fun science project for kiddos, inspired by none other than JR's fascination with all things "bug." 

I admit it. I am a life scientist with a very narrow focus on all things vertebrate (those animals with a backbone), and I have neglected a large swath of the animal kingdom for far too long.  One major animal division (phylum) are the arthropods - those animals with an exoskeleton (hard outer shell) in lieu of an internal skeleton like us humans.  Included in this phylum are classes of animals, which include insects, spiders (arachnids - FYI - did you know the highly allergenic dust mite is similar to a spider?  Now you do!), and the highly allergenic shell fish (crustaceans), among others.  By the way, a great way to ruffle the feathers of an entomologist...oh wait, "bugs" don't have feathers, is to lump spiders together with insects.  Faux pas - don't ever do that.  Here is a nice side-by-side comparison of these two classes of arthropod. 

Now that you know what insects are - on to the fun part - the science!  When it comes to insects, I'm a bit inept.  Therefore, I will refer you to an awesome, easy-to-do experiment  on a fantastic blog by The Bug Chicks!  In this experiment (link to experiment), you can leave a bug trap outside in your back yard (different brightly colored bowls filled with soapy water) and determine which color bowl is the "better" trap.  Be sure to define what "better" means - one possible example is a higher number of bugs landing in the trap.  And, like all good scientists do, form a hypothesis and think of what your experimental control will be - your baseline for comparison against the brightly colored bowls, your treatment.  Don't forget to encourage your kids to form a hypothesis (what do they think is going to happen and why).   Even if you, the parent, have an idea of what the outcome of the experiment will be, shh... do not tell your kids!  Let them discover it all on their own - this is doing science!  Once you have your results, look online to see if you can find an explanation for why your experiment turned out the way it did :).  Have fun and be sure to comment below with your findings if you end up doing the experiment!
Tools for your buggy experiment. Image source:  The Bug Chicks

 Oh, and if you or you or your child has a potential allergy or are appalled by the creepy crawlies, you can always turn to anatomically correct lego bug collections for all the insect fun without the creepy crawly :).  

I am in no way endorsing this product, other than to say this looks really cool!  Image source:

Fun sources:

1.  Explore the animal kingdom with beautiful pictures and sound explanations from the Dept. of Zoology at the University of Michigan.
2.  The Bug Chicks blog
3.  JR's favorite book on bugs:  On Beyond Bugs!  All About Insects  by Tish Rabe.

PS - I'm so excited to find out the Bug Chicks are Portland, Oregon gals!  I definitely will be on the look-out for upcoming events for JR! 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Vitamin D - A Tale of Two Studies

I'm throwing this out there today because this is confusing and definitely demands further attention.  Just in case you only noticed one of these studies making the rounds through the social networks, I wanted to make you aware of the other study showing a seemingly opposite finding.  Let me make this clear at the beginning, I do not have an answer today.  I merely just want you to be aware of the "controversy," which I will highlight in future posts.  The take-home message I want to stress today is that you should not change any current habits based solely on either of these studies!  In fact, it is never a good idea to change any habits based on evidence from any one study you see in the news.  A tenet of science is that results MUST BE REPRODUCIBLE, and the Vitamin D story appears to be, shall we say, a bit... umm (throat clear, nervous pulling at collar)... complicated.

The two different studies, published in two different journals, only one month apart - 

1.  Higher Vitamin D levels linked to the development of food allergy in the first 2 years (24 months) of life.

Maternal and newborn vitamin D status and its impact on food allergy development in the German LINA cohort study
Authors: Weisse, K, et al.
Journal: Alllergy, 2013, Vol. 68, Issue 2, pages 220-228 

2.  Insufficient (Lower) Vitamin D levels linked to food allergy in infants aged 12-18 months.

Vitamin D insufficiency is associated with challenge-proven food allergy in infants
Authors: Allen, KJ, et al.
Journal: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), 2013, Published online March 1.  

Is one of these studies "wrong?"  Is one of them "right?" Maybe they're both "right!"  It turns out that upon further analysis of past "controversies" in science, what seemingly appears to be conflicting results often reveals a very complicated process going on in the body - meaning, they both may be right!  Stay tuned!

Keys to thoroughly analyzing the Vitamin D controversy will be:

1.  What is Vitamin D and how does the body get it and use it?
2.  Are there known direct effects of Vitamin D on the cells of the immune system?  If so, what are those effects?  Would those effects seen on an individual cell level support the development of allergy or refute it?
3.  When and how did each of these studies measure vitamin D?
4.  When and how did each of these studies measure food allergy?
5.  Are there previous studies on this issue?  What do those studies show?
6.  What about previous studies on vitamin D and other allergic disorders (e.g. eczema, asthma, etc.)? 

Would you like to add any other suggestions to the list?  Please feel free to comment below!
Image source:

Friday, March 1, 2013

I Need Your Feedback! What Kind of Science do You Want to See?

Having a vision is so very important.  My intention with the Food Allergy Sleuth blog, Facebook, and Twitter page is to explore all matters allergy/immunology and share them with the rest of the world as I learn more about these topics myself!  I guess I never had the specific details worked out on 'how' exactly I wanted to accomplish this, though.  Here is where you come in - all of you allergy sufferers, allergy parents, allergy/immunology experts, and plain old science buffs alike.
I want your feedback!  Help me figure out what to blog, facebook post, tweet.  How can I best serve you?
Right now, I'm struggling with questions of quantity over quality.  There are many studies out there that receive a press release, but the quality and conclusions that can be drawn, ranges from really good to just okay and sometimes, unfortunately, abysmal.  Would you prefer to see any study with a press release pertaining to allergy/immunology passed along via FB/Twitter (undoubtedly most of you can't keep up with them all on your own!  I can't!), or would you prefer me to pass along a few higher quality pieces personally "vetted" be the sleuth? 

In all honesty, there is no way for me to vet everything that I see coming in daily.  However, the more in depth I go into one science article means that quite likely I will miss something important elsewhere.  At the same time, I want you to see what all is out there, so if you choose, you can evaluate it for yourself.  Hmm...  thoughts, anyone?

Something that troubled me yesterday was seeing articles circulate based on a new study in the journal Allergy (link to the study) - Food Allergies In Children Linked To Mother’s Vitamin D Intake During Pregnancy (link to article about the study).

The thing is, we know that environmental factors during prenatal/postnatal life are critical to a child's development, hence, strong recommendations like avoiding alcohol (prevent fetal alcohol syndrome) and taking folate (prevent nervous system defects) during pregnancy.  As a mother, I want so very much to give my child the best start possible for a lifetime of good health.  I knew that my second child would be at increased risk for allergic disorders, so I personally took measures during pregnancy and early postnatal life that I believed could be preventive based on the current evidence.  One of the measures happened to be Vitamin D supplementation.  Akkk!!!!

Anyway, upon closer inspection, the fanfare to the general public over this particular study seems premature at best, in my opinion.  Whew, personal crisis of setting my second child up for allergy temporarily averted, especially since we are currently trying to figure out what we think is a food allergy, gosh darn it (see previous post) :(.  However, what I'm wondering is how many out there don't have the experience to read between the lines and realize the study is premature?  How many out there are considering changing their behavior as a result of this study?  Worse yet, how many out there begin having trust issues with science when one week you should "vitamin D," only the next week you find out you shouldn't "vitamin D?"

I really want to provide people with access to scientific studies, but at the same time, I don't want to be a purveyor of unnecessary angst and worry - the vitamin D study a prime case in point.

Help!  What would you like to see?  Please send me your feedback! 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Research from Scientific Meetings - Cautious Optimism

In light of the recent meeting of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), I wanted to take a little time to explain to the non-science folks out there:  1) what is a scientific meeting and 2) what can we conclude from meeting highlights that are press-released and thus have been shared like wildfire across various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, those live tweets from various scientists/MDs, such as the Allergist Mommy, convinced my to join Twitter (FYI - you can find me at FdAllergySleuth, although I have NO idea what I am doing!).

1) What is a scientific meeting?
Poster session from a recent meeting for the Society for Neuroscience.  Image source:

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why should you contact congress today to save biomedical research?

Basic science research is near and dear to my heart for many reasons.  I spent nearly 7 years of my blood, sweat, and tears, in training to be a research scientist. For this reason, I wanted to share a little more of my experience, to put a face to this mysterious world of white lab coats (or so you think!), and provide tangible reasons why basic science research is so very important to things we care deeply about - solutions for allergic conditions among many others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Food Allergy: Denial to Paranoia and Everything In Between

Raw.  That's the best emotion to describe the events of this past week.  I'm generally the type of person to sort stuff out in my head first, rationalize, come up with a plan, seize control, and move on.  Needless to say, with the events of the past week, I'm still in the "sorting stuff out in my head" phase.  The following post is either catharsis or some kind of message haphazardly stuffed into a bottle and tossed out to a virtual sea with a "hope for the best."  Maybe someone out there has been here before, shares the same emotions, or can relate in some way, shape, or form.  Sometimes this food allergy journey can feel so lonely.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Can we establish safe allergen thresholds in foods? What does the current science say?

In light of the open request from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking public feedback on whether food manufacturers can set a “safe” threshold for major food allergens (peanut, milk, egg, etc.), I wanted to reason through this question with the existing scientific evidence regarding food allergy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Year's Resolve - Phagocytosing the Fear - 2013 edition

The phagocyte has learned to eat Streptofearus immunus.  Good job, phagocyte.  Keep knocking out fear of the immune system and all things pathological, one piece of knowledge at a time.
New year, new you - I'm now old enough to know just how quickly New Year's resolutions fly out the window.  If in doubt, just visit the gym on Jan 2 and then again one month later.  Notice any striking differences?  Hence, why I was a bit hesitant to publicly write the following post outlining a New Year's resolution for myself (Although, maybe by putting words down publicly, I will actually follow through?  Anyone want to hold me accountable?).