In Brief

October 2016   Comments

Good news about two “bad” childhood habits

Children who suck their thumbs or bite their nails are less likely to develop allergic sensitivities to such things as house dust mites, grass, cats, dogs, horses or airborne fungi, research has found. The study was conducted by researchers from McMaster University and New Zealand’s University of Otago, who published their results in Pediatrics. They tested the idea that thumb-sucking and nail-biting would increase exposure to microbes, affecting the immune system and reducing the development of allergies.

Thumb-sucking and nail-biting were measured in a cohort of more than 1,000 New Zealand children at ages 5, 7, 9 and 11. Atopic sensitization, which is associated with allergic reactions, was measured by skin-prick testing when the participants were 13 and 32 years old. The researchers found 31 per cent of the children were frequent thumb-suckers or nail-biters or both. At age 13, 45 per cent of all participants showed atopic sensitization, compared with 40 per cent of those with one of the oral habits and 31 per cent of those with both habits. This trend was sustained into adulthood and was not affected by whether or not the children’s parents smoked or the family owned a cat or dog.

All blood may not be created equal

A large Canadian study suggests that red blood cell transfusions from young donors and from female donors may be associated with poorer survival of recipients. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, evaluated the impact of blood donors’ sex and age on recipient outcomes by linking 30,503 transfusion recipients at the Ottawa Hospital between October 2006 and December 2013 with their respective blood donors (80,755 donors in total). The researchers found that receipt of red blood cells from female donors was associated with an eight per cent increase in the risk of death (from any cause) per unit compared with receipt from male donors. Compared with people who received red blood cells from donors age 40-50, those who received blood from donors age 17-20 and 20-30 had an eight per cent and six per cent higher risk of death per unit transfused, respectively.

The researchers noted that further study is needed to confirm these findings and to look at possible biological mechanisms. One possibility is that components in the blood of younger or female donors may affect the immune system of the transfusion recipient.

Exploring chronic pain after breast cancer surgery

Ten-year survival rates for breast cancer patients are now around 83 per cent, but up to 60 per cent of women who undergo surgery as part of cancer treatment may develop chronic pain. A study has found that women who undergo armpit lymph node surgery for breast cancer are much more likely to develop chronic pain.

An international team led by McMaster University researchers conducted a systematic review, published in CMAJ, that analyzed 30 studies involving nearly 20,000 women who underwent surgery for breast cancer. Their analysis suggested that disruption of sensory nerves in the axilla (armpit) as lymph nodes are removed is associated with a 21 per cent increase in the risk that the patient will develop chronic pain. Younger age and radiation therapy were also associated with increased odds of persistent pain. However, the researchers noted they could not be certain that efforts to spare nerves during axillary surgery for breast cancer would prevent development of chronic pain. Current standards in axillary surgery have already undergone a significant shift toward sentinel node biopsy, which lessens potential complications for many patients.

More motivation to get the flu shot for those with diabetes

People with type 2 diabetes who receive the influenza vaccine may be less likely to be admitted to hospital for myocardial infarction, stroke, heart failure and pneumonia or influenza, according to research published in CMAJ. A large study involving 124,503 patients with type 2 diabetes looked at whether the influenza vaccine helped protect against hospital admission for cardiovascular and respiratory events over a seven-year period. The researchers found that vaccination was associated with a 19 per cent reduction in hospital admissions during flu season for acute myocardial infarction, a 30 per cent reduction for stroke, a 22 per cent reduction for heart failure and a 15 per cent reduction for pneumonia or influenza. As well, people who had been vaccinated had a 24 per cent lower death rate than those who had not been vaccinated.

Few studies have assessed the benefits of the influenza vaccine in people with type 2 diabetes. This study shows that this group may derive substantial benefits from vaccination, including protection against hospital admission for some major cardiovascular outcomes.

A cheap and painless alternative to blood draws

A team led by researchers from the University of British Columbia has created a microneedle drug monitoring system that could one day replace costly, invasive blood draws and improve patient comfort. The system, described in Scientific Reports, consists of a small, thin patch that is pressed against a patient’s arm during medical treatment and measures drugs in the bloodstream painlessly without drawing any blood. The patch contains a tiny needle-like projection, less than half a millimetre long, which resembles a hollow cone. Microneedles are designed to puncture the outer layer of skin, which acts as a protective shield, but not the next layers of epidermis and the dermis, which house nerves, blood vessels and active immune cells.

The researchers discovered they could use the fluid found just below the outer layer of skin to monitor levels of the antibiotic vancomycin in the bloodstream. The microneedle collects less than a millionth of a millilitre of this fluid, and a reaction occurs on the inside of the microneedle that can be detected using an optical sensor. The researchers expect it will be possible to develop similar systems to monitor the concentrations of many other drugs.

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