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Medicine | The chemical in turkey fabled to cause drowsiness may relieve symptoms of MS

Issue: "Trailer park blues," Nov. 26, 2005

Scientists have discovered that tryptophan-the chemical in turkey fabled to cause Thanksgiving drowsiness-may relieve symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

A study published in the Nov. 4 issue of the journal Science found that tryptophan metabolites, the molecules formed when the body breaks down the amino acid, alleviated paralysis in mice with MS-like symptoms.

The researchers cannot say whether eating turkey and other tryptophan-rich foods will alleviate the symptoms of MS in humans. But co-author Lawrence Steinman of Stanford University says the study provides even further evidence of the benefits of healthy eating: "The bigger message here is that diet and immunity are inextricably linked."

Do-it-yourself genetic screenings

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Over the past few months, A Colorado company has introduced a do-it-yourself DNA test in pharmacies and grocery stores for the growing number of people who want to know their medical history before it happens.

Sciona's Cellf Genetic Assessment kit analyzes a handful of genes that influence how the body processes nutrients. For about $100, the buyer gets two CSI-style cheek swabs, a diet and lifestyle questionnaire, a prepaid mailer, and eventually a diet plan for reducing the risk of certain diseases based on the information stored in the person's genes.

The fact that eating healthy reduces the risk of certain diseases should not surprise anyone, genetic tests notwithstanding. As a Newsweek reporter who took the test put it, "spending $99 on some running shoes rather than a DNA test might have had more health advantages." But the emergence of a genetic test onto the retail market-similar tests were previously available only on the internet-shows how badly consumers want to learn their bodies' destinies, even if they cannot control them.

The number of genetic tests available has risen since scientists set out to map the human genome in 1990. Unfortunately, treatment for genetic disorders has not kept up. People who test positive have limited options that often include extreme measures, such as having a mastectomy to avoid breast cancer.

Still unanswered are questions about what happens when employers and insurance companies learn about the positive test results. Bioethicists raised their eyebrows this fall when the Chicago Bulls traded a player who refused to undergo a genetic assessment of his risk for a fatal heart disorder. Doctors said Eddy Curry, who had experienced an irregular heartbeat, was OK to play, but the team wanted more.

The team was prepared to cut Mr. Curry but continue paying him $400,000 a year if the test were positive. For Mr. Curry, though, the test itself was not worth the risk of losing his career.

Full disclosure

Sperm banks in the United Kingdom are rethinking their marketing strategies in response to recent regulatory changes that make donation less attractive to young men. Until this past spring, college students strapped for cash made the majority of sperm donations in the UK. Clinics typically paid them about $26.25, with no strict limit on how often a person could donate.

In April, a new law ended anonymity for future sperm donors. Another regulation under consideration would relax the limit on how many children a sperm donor can parent.

Dr. Jane Stewart of the Newcastle Fertility Centre said last week that the number of young sperm donors has plummeted since anonymity came into question. She suggested clinics should now refocus on recruiting older men with families.

"Since it appears they are likely to offer help for altruistic purposes, we must continue to work to increase public knowledge of the need for donors up to the age of 40," Dr. Stewart told the BBC.

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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