Throughout our life, there are battles within our body that can be viewed as skirmishes or, for some, all-out war.
As I pointed out a couple of months ago, the human microbiome – a reference to the collection of microbes, bacteria, viruses and such inhabiting the human body – has been progressively losing its diversity. The composition of the bodily bacteria determines much about how we either function or malfunction. It directly relates to our health and recovery of health when fighting disease.
The Ebola outbreak is the latest manifestation of this connection. A report published in August in the scientific journal Cell Host & Microbe points to a potential breakthrough in understanding how Ebola disarms immune defenses. These findings may prove critical in opening the door to new ways of disarming Ebola’s effect on immune response and ultimately defeating this deadly virus.
It also speaks to the critical role immunology and immunotherapy play in combating disease and how ultimate survival in today’s world is viewed more and more as being dependent on having, protecting and restoring a strong human immune system.
Some of the most promising research being conducted today is in the area of immunotherapy. In the fight against cancer, immunotherapy is proving itself to be a powerful weapon, according to an April report in The Scientist Magazine titled “Deploying the Body’s Army.” Last year, cancer immunotherapy was named breakthrough of the year by the journal Science. Unlike chemotherapy and radiation treatments, which directly attack cancer cells, immunotherapy agents augment the body’s normal immune machinery, increasing its ability to fight tumors. The concept of using a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer has been around since the 1930s. Until recently, this work had been abandoned. Now researchers believe they are poised to implement treatments that could forever change the way medical professionals approach cancer management.
On another front, researchers have made a significant breakthrough in the area of regenerative medicine and stem cell research. According to two studies published last week in the journal Nature, researchers have found a way to make stem cells by purposely putting mature cells under stress. The new method does not involve the destruction of embryos or inserting new genetic material into cells and also avoids the problem of rejection.
The process is called STAP, which stands for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, and it is estimated that the method is five to 10 times faster than other means of reprogramming cells. This breakthrough could lead to the development of therapies to repair bodily damage and cure disease by being able to insert cells that can grow into whatever tissues or organs are needed. It could also lead to understanding the process by which certain cells become cancerous. If that happens, it could ultimately unlock the way to reverse the process.
Do you have access to an immunologist? If you do, you are among the fortunate few.
According to a 2012 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the medical profession is facing both current and future shortages in a wide array of specialties – perhaps none more critical than the field of immunology. This shortage was predicted as early as 2000. In a follow-up report in June 2006, it was stressed that though the demands for specialists in the area of allergy and immunology were greatly increasing, a relatively small number of physicians were specializing in the field.
This has led to a recent widely distributed white paper by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology addressing this critical shortage. This report has been directed to medical schools around the country and federal policymakers. The facts it exposes are alarming.
Without intervention, the number of full-time allergists/immunologists will decline by nearly 7 percent by 2020, while the demand for these physicians will increase by an estimated 35 percent. Complicating this shortage will be a lack of primary care physicians trained to provide care for people with allergic and autoimmune diseases.
To put this in perspective, allergic diseases now affect 40 million to 50 million people, roughly 20 percent of the population. Allergic disease is the sixth-leading cause of chronic disease in the country. A recent study by Rutgers University predicts that pollen counts will more than double by 2040. Unless action is taken now, there will not be enough specialists to treat a growing number of patients who will desperately need care.
“Large future needs require a large response,” says the report. And it cannot be done overnight. It requires many years of training to provide the doctors needed, and this country is facing a capacity problem. According to the report, there has been no substantial medical school growth in 25 years. Also complicating the problem is the fact that the number of residency positions was capped by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. If a hospital wants to expand its residency program for allergy and immunology, it has to lower the number of residents in another area. Also working against us: Massive medical school indebtedness continues to discourage qualified applicants with limited resources, further limiting the pool.
There were 85 allergy and immunology programs in the country in 1994. By 2007, the number had dropped to 71. The number of trainees has correspondingly declined. Attrition will also play a large role in a future shortage. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that 1 in 3 active doctors are likely to retire by 2020.
There is such exciting, game-changing news in the field of immunology and immunotherapy. It is the hope of the future. New and even larger allergy and immunology residency programs are essential if we are to meet this promise and provide the care that every patient deserves. To get there will take a significant public-private initiative and policy changes at the national level. It must start with immediate support for and expansion of graduate medical education programs in allergy and immunology. And it must start now.
Write to Church Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.