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Unravelling the Link Between Pesticide Exposure and Parkinson’s Disease




By UBC Faculty of Medicine

Parkinson’s disease affects nearly 10 million people globally. Yet, much remains unknown about the triggers behind the disease.

Now, an international collaboration between UBC’s Edwin S.H. Leong Centre for Healthy Aging and researchers in France is shedding light on how genetics and environmental exposures come together to shape a person’s risk of developing the condition — potentially laying the groundwork for earlier detection and tailored prevention strategies.

The study, published in npj Parkinson’s Disease, looked specifically at pesticide exposure — one of the most well studied environmental risk factors for Parkinson’s disease. Previous research has shown that people regularly exposed to pesticides, particularly agricultural workers and farmers, have a substantially higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative disorder.

However, not everyone who sustains long-term exposure to pesticides develops Parkinson’s disease. This led the researchers to explore what other factors might be at play.

“Most cases of Parkinson’s disease don’t arise from a single factor, but rather, it’s a combination of a person’s genes, lifestyle and what they’re exposed to in the environment,” says senior author Dr. Michael Kobor, a professor of medical genetics and the Edwin S.H. Leong UBC Chair in Healthy Aging – a UBC President’s Excellence Chair.

We’re working to bring these pieces of the puzzle together to gain a better understanding of how Parkinson’s develops, who’s most at risk, and how we can prevent it.

–Dr. Michael Kobor

“While there has been a great deal of research into each of these factors on their own, we have a limited understanding of how they interact with each other. We’re working to bring these pieces of the puzzle together to gain a better understanding of how Parkinson’s develops, who’s most at risk, and how we can prevent it,” adds Dr. Kobor, also a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Social Epigenetics.

Examining epigenetic changes

For the study, Dr. Kobor and his team collaborated with researchers in France to analyze blood samples from unique cohort of French farm workers with early-stage Parkinson’s disease, known as TERRE, which includes a detailed history of pesticide exposure. They looked at changes in the epigenome — tiny molecules that attach to DNA and have the ability to turn genes on or off, like a light switch, known as DNA methylation.

DNA methylation changes have previously been detected in people within a year of a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, suggesting that this may serve as a part of a molecular blueprint for the causes of the disease.

The researchers looked for patterns between these epigenetic changes and an individual’s history of pesticide exposure, biological sex and genetic profile. They found that there were more epigenetic changes in women with early-stage Parkinson’s disease compared to men, and that most of the changes were associated with a person’s genes rather than pesticide exposure.

The findings suggest that person’s genetic makeup, and to a lesser degree how genetics and pesticide exposure interact, contribute to variability in Parkinson’s disease risk.

“These findings highlight the complex interactions between genetic and environmental factors,” says lead author Dr. Samantha Schaffner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Edwin S.H. Leong Centre for Healthy Aging. “Having certain genetic variations may only increase Parkinson’s disease risk in the context of an environmental exposure like pesticides, and they might have a sex-dependent effect on risk.”

Shaping precision medicine

The researchers hope the findings will help pave the way toward a more personalized approach to Parkinson’s disease.

A deeper understanding of the interplay between genetics, the environment and biological sex could lead to development of more precise and individualized risk profiles. This could be used to identify people who are at a high risk of Parkinson’s disease earlier and open the door for targeted interventions that would help people reduce their risk.

In the future, we may be able to estimate someone’s risk level based on their sex, genetics and lifestyle, and provide tailored guidance on prevention.

–Dr. Samantha Schaffner

“Studies like ours provide building blocks for investigation of personalized risk profiles for Parkinson’s disease and biomarkers for earlier diagnosis,” says Dr. Schaffner. “In the future, we may be able to estimate someone’s risk level based on their sex, genetics and lifestyle, and provide tailored guidance on prevention.”

While the research team notes that further studies are need in larger population samples, the findings offer valuable new insights in understanding Parkinson’s disease. It reinforces the need to consider a variety of lifestyle and genetic factors to uncover the root causes of this challenging condition.

This study was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the French National Research Agency, and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of Germany.

Previously Published on with Creative Commons License


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Sunscreen Dispensers Make Skin Cancer Prevention Easier




By John Masson

Sometimes it’s better not to overcomplicate things.

So when students at the University of Michigan Medical School wondered what prevents young people from using sunscreen more often, they simply asked them.

And what they found?

Young people were well aware of the importance of sunscreen and the cancer risk that comes with repeated sunburns – the problem was, though, that sunscreen just wasn’t handy when it was needed.

To the med students, this seemed like an eminently solvable problem.

Their one study led to two developments: first, a successful JAMA Network journal publication for the med school students who conducted it.

Then, perhaps even more significantly, the creation of a program that now places sunscreen dispensers in places around Washtenaw County where young people are likely to need them the most.

“This all started based on findings from the research project we did, where we polled youth ages 14 to 24 throughout the country on their views toward sunscreen and sunburn,” said Olivia Lamberg, M.D., who graduated from the med school this spring.

“We found the main barrier to sunscreen use was access, not education or awareness. So we decided to meet them where they’re at by putting dispensers in places where they may be needed.”

The plan

Beginning in summer 2022, with a $10,000 grant from the Rogel Cancer Center, Lamberg and her fellow med students partnered with Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation, Michigan Athletics, and dispenser and sunscreen supplier Impact Melanoma to strategically place dispensers in places like pools, golf courses and outdoor athletic fields.

In the first two years, 17 dispensers were deployed across 13 locations in Ann Arbor.

About 10,000 applications of sunscreen from the dispensers were made, and an estimated 50,000 people have seen the dispensers and their sun safety messaging.

Starting this summer, the program is expanding to high schools in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

“Certainly, when teens leave the house they are not first and foremost thinking of skin cancer prevention. Athletes are packing athletic gear, not sunscreen,” said Svati Pazhyanur, a medical student who will oversee the program in the coming year since Lamberg graduated.

“One advantage of this project is building a habit and building awareness. In that way, I think it’s been really beneficial.”

Tammy Chang, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at Michigan Medicine, has been involved with the students’ efforts from the beginning.

“This is such a wonderful example of how students are participating in research that can improve the health of their own communities,” Chang said.

“It turns out, young people actually have a lot of knowledge about the dangers of sun exposure. The problem really was operationalizing that knowledge.”

Chang adds that one of the keys to long term skin health is early and consistent use of sunscreen, and that doing so can pay huge dividends for years to come.

“Young people have this potential to change their behavior in ways that can benefit them for the remainder of their lives,” Chang said.

“The potential to impact health and improve the lives of young people is enormous.”

That realization helped drive the medical students’ participation in the program, which includes educational visits to Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation’s summer camps.

During the visits, medical students taught more than 250 youngsters about sun safety, using a combination of games to bring the lessons home.

“We’d do a lot of different games – relay races, have teams pick through different types of clothing to see which types are best in the sun, or have them dress up a teammate in sun safety clothing,” Lamberg said. “We have beads that change color in UV light, so we made bracelets and necklaces out of those,” said Lamberg, who stated it visually highlights the difference between playing in the shade and playing in the sun.

For Pazhyanur, who now dedicates an estimated three to five hours a week to the project, the efforts are well worth it.

“We’re building a habit and building awareness, and in that way I think it’s been beneficial,” Pazhyanur said.

Because of Pazhyanur’s Indian heritage, the work has extra meaning for her: people of color, although typically less prone to skin cancer, tend to have worse outcomes because darker skin means melanoma is often detected later.

“The prevalence is lower than in people with lighter skin,” Pazhyanur said.

“But skin cancer is often caught later, and there’s a higher melanoma mortality among people of color.”

Chang says the heart of the program – and its greatest strength – is its roots in the community.

“The strongest aspect of this program is that it’s community driven,” Chang said.

“The idea came from young people who live and work in this community, and that’s why it works. Communities know best what is good for them.”

It doesn’t hurt, either, that it’s really pretty simple, she says.

“It’s not a fancy, complicated program,” Chang said.

“But sometimes the most simple programs, focused on what the community really wants, are the most effective.”

Previously Published on with Creative Commons License


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Sea Moss Supplement by Holistic Vybez: A Family-Owned Wellness Revolution



Established by Naeem and Ashley Akbar, Holistic Vybez is a family-run firm that has grown quickly to become a major force in the holistic health sector. Holistic Vybez, which was founded on vegan principles and was influenced by Dr. Sebi, was started during the pandemic to cater to the growing interest of consumers in wellness and health. This piece examines their path, the difficulties they encountered, and their goals going forward.

Both Dr. Sebi’s disciples Naeem and Ashley Akbar were devoted vegans. They founded Holistic Vybez during the pandemic because of their steadfast commitment to natural health and wellness. They decided to go all in and sell goods meant to improve immunity and general well-being, such as their well-liked sea moss supplement, after realizing that consumer attention was shifting toward health.

Sea Moss Gel Challenges: Perseverance Amidst Adversity

Starting a sea moss gel and health company during the pandemic’s peak meant overcoming several challenges:

  • Pandemic challenges: Products were lost and reshipping costs incurred a loss of almost $7,000.
  • Customer communication: To establish their superior level of customer service, Naeem and Ashley personally contacted each consumer to explain the circumstances.

Seamoss Store: Scaling Up

Holistic Vybez showed tenacity and dedication by expanding from a basement operation to a 5,000-square-foot warehouse in just two years. Their commitment to delivering a high-quality sea moss supplement and upholding stellar client relations drove their quick development.

Health With Intention

  • Emphasis on health benefits: Holistic Vybez places a higher priority on health benefits than flavor. Every newly released sea moss supplement producthas an ever-expanding list of therapeutic benefits.
  • Novel goods: To provide extra value for their customers, every new flavor or product, like their sea moss gel, is carefully chosen for its health advantages.

Career Highlights

  • Rapid growth: In just four years, Holistic Vybez has scaled to an $8,000,000 business.
  • Customer loyalty: Their commitment to quality and customer service has earned them a loyal customer base.

Expanding Sea Moss Gel and the Holistic Vybez Brand

Holistic Vybez aims to become a leading brand in the holistic health industry. The Akbar’s dream of opening physical stores to reach and support more communities, making it easier for customers to buy sea moss online or visit a nearby seamoss store.

The Heart of Holistic Vybez and Sea Moss Supplements

A tribute to the Akbars’ commitment to infusing family values into every facet of their business is Holistic Vybez. Because they are a family-run, black business, they make sure that all of their employees are treated as members of their extended family, which fosters a friendly and cooperative work atmosphere.

Image sourced from the Holistic Vybez website.

Naeem and Ashley Akbar have made it a point to conduct their business in an environmentally responsible manner. They use food from sustainable farms and utilize recyclable packaging materials. Their commitment to environmental preservation is a reflection of their holistic wellness concept, which takes into account both the health of the environment and their clientele.

Holistic Vybez is distinguished not only by its superior sea moss supplements and goods but also by its everlasting dedication to family, health, and customer support. The goal of a healthy world is progressively coming to pass thanks to Naeem and Ashley Akbar’s ongoing innovation and growth.

This content is brought to you by Noan Noah

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Plasma You Sell in East Kansas City Could End up in Medicine an Ocean Away




By Suzanne King

Michael Mullen donates blood plasma every Tuesday and Thursday. He has for 12 years.

  1. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries that lets people sell plasma.
  2. Plasma donation centers in the United States, including 11 in Kansas City, supply 70% of the world’s plasma.
  3. Drug therapies made from the plasma are life-saving to people with rare, chronic diseases.
  4. But critics worry that the effects of frequent, long-term donation are unknown.

The money it brings in — a little over $100 a week — augments what he makes as a chef. He’s come to rely on it.

“It helps supplement bill paying,” he said recently, smoking a cigarette outside the Biomat USA donation center on East 63rd Street where he’d just spent an hour and a half in the donation chair. “If I didn’t have it, I don’t know. I don’t know what would happen.”

Kelcey Gordon is out of work and said he’d struggle without the money he makes donating twice a week. Standing outside the same for-profit plasma donation center, one of 11 in the Kansas City area, he said he is grateful for the extra cash it represents.

In the $35 billion plasma pharmaceutical industry, Mullen, Gordon and some 3 million other U.S. adults supply the raw material the industry counts on.

The plasma they deposit every week is tested, processed and separated into protein parts that become medicine to treat rare, chronic conditions like immune deficiencies, autoimmune diseases and bleeding disorders.

Their plasma, collected at a storefront that shares a shopping center with a Thriftway and lies just a block east of Cash America Pawn, will end up in medicines sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars a dose. It will likely treat patients on the other side of the world.

Thanks to regulations that make the United States one of the few countries to let companies pay for plasma, and because people here can donate as often as twice a week, the U.S. supplies about 70% of the world’s plasma.

“This is the world basket of plasma,” said Peter Jaworski, a Georgetown University professor who studies the plasma economy.

The industry — with the enthusiastic backing of organizations that advocate for people suffering from the diseases that plasma therapies treat — says the system works. If people weren’t paid to donate, they argue demand could not be met. That would mean thousands of people would die or be unable to live normal lives.

The plasma centers, most of them owned and operated by pharmaceutical companies based overseas, say their business models also inject money into local communities.

Donation centers employ phlebotomists, security guards and screeners. And the payments made to donors — which vary based on how often someone donates and, in some cases, how much a donor weighs — go back into the local economy.

But doctors and public health experts caution that no one really knows what frequent plasma donations over many years could mean for donors’ health.

And they worry that poor people provide a bulk of U.S. donations at plasma centers. Plasma centers tend to set up in disadvantaged neighborhoods and rely on incentive programs designed to make donors give again and again.

Plasma centers push people to give as often as possible, but they don’t disclose the unknown risks of frequently extracting plasma from their blood for many years.

“People perceive it as a better alternative than high-cost loans that lead to debt,” said Emily A. Gallagher, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Colorado. She co-authored a study about the intersection between plasma donors and payday loan customers.

“Without knowing the longer-term health consequences,” she said, “it’s analogous to a loan against your future house with an unknown interest rate.”

Therapies from donated plasma

The blood running through your veins includes red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and plasma. Plasma — a yellow-tinged liquid — accounts for more than half of your blood.

It is 90% water, but also contains proteins vital to living a normal life. When someone has plasma that lacks  — or is short on — certain proteins, they end up with rare and chronic diseases. Medicines made from healthy human plasma treat those diseases by supplementing the lacking plasma.

For someone with primary immune deficiency, a condition in which a person’s immune system doesn’t function properly, it takes 130 donations to cover a year’s worth of treatment. For a person with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a potentially fatal disease that can lead to organ damage, that number jumps to 900 donations a year. And for someone with hemophilia, a blood clotting disorder, it takes 1,200 donations of plasma to make a year’s worth of medicine.

Scientists have known about blood circulation since 1628, and blood transfusions began almost that long ago. In 1665, a British doctor figured out how to keep a dog alive by transfusing blood from other dogs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists began to figure out that different people had different blood types. And by World War II the value of blood plasma was well understood.

In 1940, researchers developed a process to break plasma down into individual components to treat patients. That’s essentially what happens to plasma donated today.

Wild west of plasma collection

Donated plasma goes through a process known as fractionation, which separates plasma into various protein parts. Once it is tested and cleaned — a process that can take up to a year — those proteins are pooled with other donors’ plasma and made into therapies.

Plasma therapies for patients on the receiving end are considered extremely safe today. Tests designed to find plasma tainted by disease are highly effective. And plasma pharmaceutical makers won’t use plasma until a donor has given at least twice and the donor has passed a health screening. In addition, plasma is treated to kill any lingering virus before it is used in medicine.

But in the 1980s, before it was understood that viruses like HIV could be transmitted through blood, plasma transfusions proved deadly.

In the United States, 63% of hemophiliacs contracted HIV after receiving plasma from infected donors. Others contracted hepatitis B and hepatitis C, diseases that are also transmitted through blood.

After those “wild west days of plasma collection,” Jaworski said, the industry underwent drastic changes. That included pharmaceutical companies taking over independent donation centers. In recent years, those centers have multiplied.

Pharmaceutical companies operate a combined 1,000 collection centers in the United States. That’s compared to 300 in 2005.

The business of taking human plasma and turning it into medicine is worth about $35 billion this year. And that could nearly double by 2032, according to Fortune Business Insights, a market research firm.

Growing demand for plasma donations

Kansas City-area donation centers are all owned directly by the companies that make the plasma-derived drugs.

They include the Biomat on 63rd Street, owned by Grifols S.A., a Spanish company. Other Kansas City donation centers are owned by CSL Ltd., based in Australia, Takeda Pharmaceuticals from Japan and Octapharma Plasma, out of Switzerland.

Experts say the influx of new donation centers in recent years follows growing demand for plasma therapies. That’s because scientists are figuring out that more diseases can benefit from plasma medicines. During the COVID pandemic, plasma transfusions from previously infected donors were tried as a treatment, but its effectiveness isn’t understood because scientific testing was lacking.

Demand for plasma therapies is also up because more people are being diagnosed with diseases that could benefit from them.

For example, improved newborn screenings mean more people know they have primary immune deficiency, diseases that affect an estimated 500,000 people. But according to the Immune Deficiency Foundation, “tens of thousands” of others remain undiagnosed.

Only the United States, Germany, the Czech Republic and a few other countries allow payments for plasma donations. The countries that restrict payments have to rely on imports, primarily from the U.S. There is no synthetic alternative to human plasma.

That’s why Jaworski wants more countries to allow paid plasma.

“There isn’t a single country in the world that collects enough plasma to meet demand unless they compensate donors,” he said. “The most important moral mission for a system of blood and plasma collection is to meet the needs of patients.”

By that standard, he said, the American system is unquestionably succeeding.

“America not only collects enough for its own citizens,” he said, “it also collects enough for the rest of the world.”

Is donating plasma twice a week safe?

Through a process known as plasmapheresis, the plasma collected at for-profit centers is taken out of a donor’s arm as whole blood, pumped into a machine that separates out plasma and returns red blood cells and other components of blood to the donor.

That process, known as source plasma collection, is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and also overseen by the countries that import the plasma. Donors spend about 90 minutes in the donation chair.

Nonprofit blood centers like the Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City collect plasma through whole blood donations. Plasma is separated out once blood has been donated. But that process yields much less plasma.

Nonprofit blood banks don’t pay for donations. For one thing, hospitals won’t accept blood from a donor who has been compensated. And the World Health Organization advises against paying for donations. It’s considered risky because donors who give blood because they need money could be more likely to misrepresent their health history — essentially hiding the likelihood that they’re carrying blood-borne infections.

Because plasma used in pharmaceuticals is so thoroughly processed, the risk posed by paid donations is lower. Jaworski said it’s proved to be extraordinarily safe for 30 years. He argues that objections to paid plasma donations are unrealistic when so many people rely on plasma therapies.

He compared paying people for their plasma to hiring firefighters rather than relying on volunteers. The payment doesn’t diminish the good act, he said.

“At some point, you get too many fires and you have to pay people to put out the fires,” he said. “We hit that tipping point (for plasma) more than 20 years ago.”

People who rely on the therapies created from paid-for plasma are actively campaigning to be sure paid donations continue.

The Immune Deficiency Foundation has a program meant to recruit more paid donors. “Your work will encourage donors to continue donating and, in turn, encourage their friends and family to donate plasma as well,” the organization’s web page says.

But while plasma-derived therapies are critical for the patients relying on them to live a normal life, some doctors worry about what plasma donation could do to donors.

Plasma collection centers advise donors to drink lots of water, get sleep and have a healthy meal before donating. In the near term, donors are told to be prepared for certain temporary side effects like dehydration, dizziness and fatigue.

On its webpage, CSL Plasma also warns about the possibility that donating frequently for a long period of time can deplete immunoglobulin levels, which can lower a person’s ability to fight off infections.

What is the downside to donating plasma?

Dr. Morey A. Blinder, a hematologist at Washington University, said that’s definitely something frequent plasma donors should worry about. Long-term studies, looking at people who donate plasma twice a week, year after year, simply haven’t been done, he said.

“You’re depleting a person’s proteins in their bloodstream,” he said. “And it’s hard to know what the effect of that is.”

Proteins regenerate, he said, so in the short term, people can keep up. But it’s unclear what happens over time.

And while the plasma collection centers monitor donors’ health, their incentive isn’t to limit donations. It’s to collect as much plasma as possible.

“There are financial incentives to these donors to stay on schedule and keep donating,” Blinder said.

Many doctors would feel more comfortable, he said, if that pressure were reduced. Blinder also would like to see more frequent checks of donors’ blood levels, and a weekly, rather than twice weekly, donation limit.

“People in this field would say that would be an advantage,” he said.

Blinder also questions whether the pharmaceutical companies are paying donors fairly. Donors take home around $50 per donation, but the medicine it’s eventually turned into can cost $200 a gram, perhaps $16,000 per treatment dose, depending on the illness.

“We don’t have a good sense of the margins they earn on the plasma,” said Gallagher, the University of Colorado professor.

Right or wrong, the paid plasma business has become a reasonably big thread in the country’s social safety net. Gallagher found that people tend to donate plasma so they can get extra money and avoid taking out high-interest loans to make ends meet. Donors range from college students to single parents to low-wage earners who just need extra cash.

BioLife Plasma Services is promising new donors “up to $800.” And CSL Plasma advertises new donors “over $700 your first month.”

Whether or not donors are getting a fair payment, selling plasma is tempting a growing number of Americans. And, like Mullen and Gordon, they’re relying on the extra cash.

That’s why most mornings, before CSL Plasma’s donation center at 37th and Broadway opens for business at 6 a.m., a line of ready donors is already waiting outside.

This article first appeared on Beacon: Kansas City and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.


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