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The Fires Within #1/8 ( By TIME - Feb. 23. 2004 )

What does a stubbed toe or a splinter in a finger have to do with your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, suffering a heart attack or succumbing to colon cancer? More than you might think. As scientists delve deeper into the fundamental causes of those and other illnesses, they are starting to see links to an age-old immunological defense mechanism called inflammation--the same biological process that turns the tissue around a splinter red and causes swelling in an injured toe. If they are right--and the evidence is starting to look pretty good--it could radically change doctors' concept of what makes us sick. It could also prove a bonanza to pharmaceutical companies looking for new ways to keep us well.

Most of the time, inflammation is a lifesaver that enables our bodies to fend off various disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites. (Yes, even in the industrialized world, we are constantly bombarded by pathogens.) The instant any of these potentially deadly microbes slips into the body, inflammation marshals a defensive attack that lays waste to both invader and any tissue it may have infected. Then just as quickly, the process subsides and healing begins.

Every once in a while, however, the whole feverish production doesn't shut down on cue. Sometimes the problem is a genetic predisposition; other times something like smoking or high blood pressure keeps the process going. In any event, inflammation becomes chronic rather than transitory. When that occurs, the body turns on itself--like an ornery child who can't resist picking a scab--with aftereffects that seem to underlie a wide variety of diseases.

Suddenly, inflammation has become one of the hottest areas of medical research. Hardly a week goes by without the publication of yet another study uncovering a new way that chronic inflammation does harm to the body. It destabilizes cholesterol deposits in the coronary arteries, leading to heart attacks and potentially even strokes. It chews up nerve cells in the brains of Alzheimer's victims. It may even foster the proliferation of abnormal cells and facilitate their transformation into cancer. In other words, chronic inflammation may be the engine that drives many of the most feared illnesses of middle and old age.

This concept is so intriguing because it suggests a new and possibly much simpler way of warding off disease. Instead of different treatments for, say, heart disease, Alzheimer's and colon cancer, there might be a single, inflammation-reducing remedy that would prevent all three.

Chronic inflammation also fascinates scientists because it indicates that our bodies may have, from an evolutionary perspective, become victims of their own success. "We evolved as a species because of our ability to fight off microbial invaders," says Dr. Peter Libby, chief of cardiovascular medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "The strategies our bodies used for survival were important in a time when we didn't have processing plants to purify our water, when we didn't have sewers to protect us."





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| TIME | 08:34 | comments:0 | trackbacks:0 | TOP↑

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