Following Science and Its Fiction

Let me tell you a little about how I developed my keen interest in the study of the human immune system. 

In sixth grade, I fell in love with reading science fiction books. My teacher, Mr. Gary Muschla, read the class Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” and I was hooked. My passion for science fiction continued throughout middle school and high school as I devoured books by Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, and Piers Anthony.

In eighth grade, I decided that I would major in biochemistry when I went to college, which is rather unusual for a middle schooler. By ninth grade I set my sites on becoming a medical doctor. I remember the thrill of researching and writing a thirty-page term paper on cancer treatments for my advanced placement biology class.  I concluded that immunotherapy held the greatest promise for a cure. In my mind, science fiction was swiftly becoming science fact.

At Rutgers University, I majored in biochemistry. Then, after four years serving in the army, I took jobs with pharmaceutical and Clinical Research staffing firms and worked with pharmaceutical giants such as Glaxo, Amgen, Genentech and Celgene. I truly was living my dream as I became a subject matter expert in antibiotic, allergy and asthma treatment protocols and the FDA approval process.

Then, in 2000, my life was upended when I was diagnosed with the auto-immune disorder known as Graves Disease. Over the next three years, I lost my mother, my father, and my eldest brother to complications from cancer, tragedies that transformed my passion into an obsessive need to understand the immune system that can either save or destroy us.

Every year, new immunotherapy breakthroughs are happening all around us. My desire to research, learn, and experiment is aimed at understanding the true root cause of disease and the ways we can recover from or prevent illness. We may not yet have nano-machines (nanites) traveling through our bloodstreams, helping our immune systems combat deadly illnesses, but science is getting ever closer to these science fiction dreams.

So while I love science and I love science fiction, I don’t want scientific facts to become fictions.  But scientific facts and data are created and interpreted by humans and in these hyper-partisan times, control and politics have invaded what I thought was a methodical, logical and neutral world.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told to “follow the science” and “listen to the experts” but many have become disillusioned by the contradictory information being shared and disseminated by our government and health organization leaders.

It’s December 2020 and most of the world’s population has been living in a bizarre state of pandemic fear, stress and uncertainty for 10 months.  A legion of medical, scientific and biotechnology professionals have been hyper-focused on understanding the unpredictable new virus (SARS- CoV-2) and how it can be eradicated.  We have witnessed very significant progress and worldwide cooperation which has led to epic innovations in vaccine development.

It’s the end of 2020 and although we don’t have nano-machine enabled immune systems like the ones depicted in the best selling science fiction series “The Rho Agenda” by Richard Phillips, two pharmaceutical companies have requested emergency use approval in the US for messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines to protect against the novel coronavirus. This breakthrough has me thrilled and excited for the future of immunotherapy.

This year’s flurry of research and activity on the virus vaccine front brought back memories of the intense focus and effort in the 1980s and 90s on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which caused the AIDS epidemic.  I remember learning about the important role of T Cells in the immune system and how remarkably adaptive and fragile these human defense mechanisms can be.

While I am hopeful and excited to watch the private/public collaboration of numerous biotech companies and governments across the world, my positive mood sours as I watch cable news, read newspapers, Facebook and Twitter with sensationalized stories to exaggerate the numbers, trends and statistics and exploit people’s fears.

The scientific method and my understanding of the immune system was turned on its head as I listened to the countless world experts and health leaders give their press conferences and statements.  

What I was hearing didn’t always make sense and I soon came to realize that the world health organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) were political bodies more than they were health advocates.

I was dismayed at the politicization of the COVID 19 response in the United States and wish that our government officials would focus more on common sense approaches and the basics of good health and strong immune systems.  Instead, many have weaponized the data and the science to support the agreed upon narratives.

I couldn’t believe it when I saw some US medical doctors being censored and threatened for speaking about certain therapeutic treatments. 

As the distrust of the federal and state governments and centralized health organizations increased, the public began to question the validity of the statistics and metrics.  There is continued uncertainty about the risk and the best prevention strategies for containing and combatting the virus.

Image Credit: Peterschreiber.media/Shutterstock.com

So this all brings me back to my passion and interest in the human immune system and how it can help us cope and survive the madness that is 2020 and the COVID 19 pandemic.

Now more than ever, I marvel at the amazingly adaptive and effective human immune system.   If we nurture and support our bodies with proper nutrition, exercise and healthy lifestyle habits, our innate and acquired immune systems can protect us well from most pathogens.

Knowing that the human immune system is a robust and multi-level system with two main types of cells can help us understand, appreciate and support their functions.

Innate immune cells are the 1st line and include macrophages and other pac-man-like cells including neutrophils and basophils ( see image below).  If this first response doesn’t neutralize the invading bacteria or virus, the special ops cells are activated.  B and T cells are lymphocytes and use past behavior and exposure to identify and eliminate foreign threats in the body. This is our acquired or adaptive immune system.

B-cells fight bacteria and viruses by making Y-shaped proteins called antibodies, which are specific to each pathogen and are able to lock onto the surface of an invading cell and mark it for destruction by other immune cells.

There are two types of T-cells: helper T-cells and killer T-cells. Helper T-cells stimulate B-cells to make antibodies and help killer cells develop. Killer T-cells directly kill cells that have already been infected by a foreign invader. T-cells also use cytokines as messenger molecules to send chemical instructions to the rest of the immune system to ramp up its response.

Types of Immune Cells

Knowledge of our amazing immune systems can help us understand why the vast majority of people have mild symptoms when they are exposed to coronaviruses. Many peoples’ adaptive immune systems have naturally responded to the foreign invaders. Unfortunately, there are millions of people around the world whose immune systems did not respond in a positive or productive way, and this has resulted in far too many deaths. This is where medical and health officials can do a better job to educate people on the importance of maintaining a strong immune system and the risk of having a comorbidity.

So as we listen to and follow the science, remember that Science is not an Oracle and he doesn’t write blogs or do podcast interviews. Science is not an all powerful, all knowing entity. “Rather we have a mountain of research and data that is correlated, extrapolated and interpreted by a multitude of flawed and biased human, each with their own personal and political perspective.”

Human biases aside, I am still optimistic that sci-fi dreams of nano-machine enabled immune systems may one day become a science reality. Until that day, I will continue to share the important message about our body’s amazingly adaptive defensive system and how we can help improve and shore up our internal protections.

To the world’s health, medical and political leaders, I implore them to set aside their control based and non-common-sense policies and let scientific research and experimentation be the methodical, logical and neutral world where it can best thrive, discover and innovate to save lives.

Here’s to Following Science but Not it’s Fiction!

Strong Connections, Healthy Brains

A 3 Point Inspection Plan for a Battle Ready Body

One of the things that surprised me most when I served in the US Army was the insane amount of time spent cleaning- whether it was cleaning our equipment, our weapons, our boots or the bathrooms,  it seemed like we always polishing, maintaining and recovering things. At the time, I didn’t fully understand and appreciate why there would be so much focus on Preventative Maintenance Checks and Services otherwise known in the Army as PMCS. The sergeants and officers in my unit were obsessive about this and we had these checks on the training schedule more days than not. And so my platoon did Physical Training (PT), inspections and equipment maintenance nearly every day. Why did we do this? To be in the best, most high performing condition and ready for battle.

Now let’s think about how many cars you’ve owned in the last 25 years? How many oil changes, tire rotations and maintenance checks have they had?  How many 15 point inspections were done?  How much time and money have you spent to ensure that your vehicle was in good condition and ready for a road trip?

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One of the things that puzzles me about American society today is how much time and energy people put into the care of their motor vehicles and how much less effort and focus is put into maintaining their bodies.

Speaking of bodies. So far on this planet, how many human bodies have you had?

Last I checked, we only get issued one body at birth.

The good news is, unlike a car or machine, our bodies are self-healing and adaptable, we just need to give them the proper care and attention.

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I am excited to share with you a simple 3 point inspection plan to help get your body battle ready.

One of my favorite bands of the 1970’s is Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR) and this is how you can remember the three points:

  1. Connect

  2. Care

  3. Recover

First let’s talk about the importance of Connections.  What I miss most about being in the military is the camaraderie, bonds and cohesion. I always felt like I was part of a supportive team.  Someone always had my back.  The value and benefit to having a strong circle of good friends and family should not be overlooked in today’s virtual world.

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Positive support, help and encouragement from others is shown to increase our immune systems.   People with a positive network of friends and family that they can personally connect with have longer life expectancies.

Organizations like the American Legion, VFW, Toastmasters International, Rotary Club, and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) like the Military Veterans Network (MVN) at my company Charles Schwab help bring people together and promote common bonds.

 

The second point in the Inspection Plan is Care, specifically self-care.  We have all heard about the importance of eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated and getting enough physical exercise.  I’d like to highlight and focus on two other factors that have a huge impact on your health and wellbeing- Sleep and Stress.  The importance of a good night sleep cannot be overstated since stress and sleep are often inversely proportional.

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Quality sleep plays a vital role in the body’s ability to heal and repair itself and is necessary for the brain to rebalance by clearing out harmful toxins.

Recover is the third point in the plan and involves rebalancing and restoring your body, brain and mind each and every day.   I find this to be the most interesting area with the discovery and application of new science and technology.   Advances in neuroscience have fueled the emergence of new Brain Performance centers across the country.

Last year, I took part in a six month program for military veterans at a Vitanya Wellness center in Tempe, AZ where I experienced the benefits of reducing my stress, increasing my sleep and restoring my neural balance through a combination of brain health supplements and brain wave entrainment devices. By consistently taking care of myself and leveraging these new techniques and protocols, I found that my resilience, mental sharpness and memory improved in ways I had not thought possible.  For more information click here.

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Technology aside, there are many things you can do each day to help yourself to recover and rebalance including yoga, meditation and other restorative activities.

One of the things that perplexes me most about my fellow humans is their ability to learn and gain so much knowledge about what is good for their health and well being and then how rarely, if ever, they apply it!

It is my hope is that you will remember the importance of a daily PMCS- just like I did while I was in the Army.

Take care of the one body you were issued at birth because there is no plan B- there no spare one sitting in your garage.

Do your Preventative Maintenance Checks and Service and the daily 3 Point Inspection to have a battle ready body for as you travel in your journey of life you will encounter twists and turns and the inevitable steep hill.

Know that positive connections, proper self-care and recovery can give you the strength and resilience to power through the tough days and overcome whatever obstacles cross your path.

Connect, Care and Recover with spirit and zeal.

Take care of your amazing organic being and let it take you on the ride of your life!

 

My Compelling Blog: Part 4 (JKL)

Life is a crazy rollercoaster and sometimes you just have to laugh at the absolute insanity of it all.

This is why Part 4 of my compelling blog features the phrase “Just Keep Laughing”  for the letters JKL.   I thought this was more helpful and inspirational than “Just Kidding Loser” or worse yet, the dreaded “Just Kidding LOL”.  Is it just me or do you find LOL to be annoying?

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My Mom’s favorite express was “Live, Love, Laugh” and I always admired her warm smile and jolly laugh. She had a tough life with many challenges but she never let it get her down.

So when the crazy/mean/rude/obnoxious people in this world start making you feel like your head is going to explode, remember Just Keep Laughing!

Plus, as an added bonus, laughing has many health benefits for you, including:

  1. Reduces stress hormone levels
  2. Triggers the release of endorphins
  3. Increases your creativity
  4. Works your abs
  5. Boosts your immune system
  6. Lowers blood pressure
  7. Reduces anxiety
  8. Relaxes you and calms your mood

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Photo by Steve Smull

Mighty Gumby and the Importance of Flexible Strength 

Ouch! Traveling can be painful. Three weeks of planes, rental cars and unfamiliar beds have wreaked havoc on my back muscles. Plus, I was foolish and did not heed my own advice which is the key point of this article.

Flexibility and Strength are not mutually exclusive and should be worked on in tandem as much as possible. I am thinking of tattooing this reminder on my arm.

Are you one of those naturally flexible people who can do touch your toes without too much trouble? I have always admired this ability since I am not the most limber person in the world. When I was seven years old I struggled more than the other girls at the bar in ballet class. My muscles just didn’t seem as gumby-like as the graceful ballerinas. I was envious and realized that I wouldn’t be joining the circus as an acrobat anytime soon.

After my traumatic dance class experience I longed to be a combination of Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman. The power, adaptability and super hearing abilities were alluring to me. I also longed to possess a “Truth Lasso” for obvious reasons.

Though I wasn’t able to touch to toes as a child, I did have strong leg muscles so I gravitated towards sports like soccer, track and cycling. I started weight lifting in college and ultimately joined the army where the goal was to do as many push-ups I could in a two minutes. Strength trumped flexibility because it was easier. Little did I realize how this one sided focus could cause imbalance, restriction and injury. Why did my lower back always get pulled into a painful knot? Why would my neck become so tight that I couldn’t look up?

Photo by Nancy Martch who is pictured below

Neck strain and back pain are so common in our stressed out and hectic world that Yoga centers are popping up everywhere to help unwind, relax and balance the masses.   This year in Austin I’ve been practicing yoga with a steady frequency and I was feeling great. In retrospect, my vacation plans to visit friends and family for my birthday should have included stretching and breathing exercises to keep me in balance. Oh when will I ever learn?

Many people don’t fully understand and appreciate the importance of balancing flexibility and strength. Here’s a good, simple way to think about it:

  • Increasing flexibility without strength results in joint instability.
  • Increasing strength without flexibility results in soft tissue tears, sprains and postural changes.

Thankfully three strong, lithe friends came into my life over the last 15 years and introduced me the power and healing benefits of the ancient practice. What Heidi started in San Diego in 2002, Nancy and Clarissa continue to inspire me to reach for my toes and beyond.

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Photo by Barry Staver

Elastic power leads to balance and stability, helping us physically and mentally in our personal and professional lives. Being grounded and level headed makes you a confident more assertive speaker and leader.

Here’s some great advice I received in yoga class: Flexibility needs to be supported by strength and stability.

Now I happily compliment my push-ups with the all -important child’s pose. My weight lifting reps are interspersed with the ever helpful downward facing dog.

Over the years I have come to marvel at how much yoga has improved my bicycling skills and strength and how my core strength has made my yoga poses so much more grounded.

Too much of any one good thing can lead to trouble and a wonderful blend of complimentary things can launch us to higher levels of achievement and satisfaction.

 

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Strong and flexible muscles are happy and less prone to injury.

So be like a mighty Gumby- your back and neck muscles will thank you!

 

Knowing What We’ve Got

Being sick while on vacation has put me in a philosophical mood.  Yesterday I reflected on the labyrinth.

Today I was well enough to fully appreciate an easy jog on a cactus-lined trail.  My senses were heightened as I savored every minute of my normally routine and bland morning exercise.    The old adage “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” kept repeating in my formerly stuffed head.


Then I started branching my thoughts and thinking of other things I have taken for granted and don’t appreciate enough.

Things like Integrity.

Honesty. Liberty.  Respect.

Things like Health, Happiness and Serenity.

Priceless things like Gratitude, Friendship and Honor.

I take none of the things for granted and cherish them more each day.   It’s amazing what a clear head in the desert can do for you!

Robo Koko: Confessions of a Dashboard Junkie

I must confess, I’ve become a dashboard junkie!

In the last six months, multiple aspects of my life have been tracked and monitored by an automated, “robo” tool.  From fitness workouts and calories burned to sleep and step activity to financial investing, I have gadgets aplenty tracking a plethora of performance and personal progress statistics.

Last month I joined Koko FitClub, a digital gym and have been religiously wearing my Fitbit to capture my steps, stairs climbed, and sleep activity.  The Koko experience has been positive and it seems I’m becoming addicted to the online dashboards.  I enjoy the SmartTraining aspect of having my workout plans preloaded in a thumb drive and the visual display of each exercise and rep count on the floating screen in front of me.  After each workout, I run home to check out the website to review my numbers and progress.  I’m like a little kid who wants to see the grades on her report card at school.

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One meaning for the word koko in Japanese is “individually” and that is what this type of fitness program gives you-  help and guidance from an intelligent machine with minimal human interaction.

I’ve watched this trend toward more personalized and internally focused electronics, apps and interfaces over the past fifteen years starting with iTunes, the iPod and the iPhone and moving on to Google Glass, the iPad, the Fitbit and now the Apple Watch.  It seems that more and more we humans want our experiences with the world to be custom tailored to our exact needs and desires.

Here are some of the reasons why I like robo and koko-like tracking and interfaces:

    1. Awareness and Accountability- both are increased.
    2. Motivation.  I respond well to the visual achievement of goals.
    3. Charts and graphs excite me.
    4. Encouragement and recognition on meeting objectives. Fitbit is very good at this.

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The Economist magazine recently published an interesting article entitled “Ask the Algorithm”  which highlighted the recent trends in automated wealth management tools and the rise of the “robo-advisers”.  There a donut charts aplenty on the dashboards of these new applications.

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Asset Allocation Dashboard

So welcome to the machine ( one of my favorite Pink Floyd songs) and kick back and enjoy the lovely and colorful dashboards!