Tag Archives: cancer

Penicillin, cheese allergy, and stomach cancer

penecillin molecule

The penicillin molecule is a product of the penicillin mold

Many people believe they are allergic to penicillin — it’s the most common perceived drug allergy — but several studies have shown that most folks who think they are allergic are not. Perhaps they once were, but when people who thought they were allergic were tested, virtually none showed allergic reaction. In a test of 146 presumably allergic patients at McMaster University, only two had their penicillin allergy confirmed; 98.6% of the patients tested negative. A similar study at the Mayo Clinic tested 384 pre-surgical patients with a history of penicillin allergy; 94% tested negative, and were given clearance to receive penicillin antibiotics before, during, and after surgery. Read a summary here.


Orange showing three different strains of the penicillin mold; some of these are toxic.

This is very good news. Penicillin is a low-cost, low side-effect antibiotic, effective against many diseases including salmonella, botulism, gonorrhea, and scarlet fever. The penicillin molecule is a common product of nature, produced by a variety of molds, e.g. on the orange at right, and used in cheese making, below. It is thus something most people have been exposed to, whether they realize it or not.

Penicillin allergy is still a deadly danger for the few who really are allergic, and it’s worthwhile to find out if that means you. The good news: that penicillin is found in common cheeses suggests, to me, a simple test for penicillin allergy. Anyone who suspects penicillin allergy and does not have a general dairy allergy can try eating brie, blue, camembert, or Stilton cheese: any of cheeses made with the penicillin mold. If you don’t break out in a rash or suffer stomach cramps, you’re very likely not allergic to penicillin.

There is some difference between cheeses. Some, like brie and camembert, have a white fuzzy mold coat; this is Penicillium camemberti. it exudes penicillin — not in enough to cure gonorrhea, but enough to give taste and avoid spoilage — and to test for allergy. Danish blue and Roquefort, shown below, have a different look and more flavor. They’re made with blue-green, Penicillium roqueforti. Along with penicillin, this mold produces a small amount of neurotoxin, roquefortine C. It’s not enough to harm most people, but it could cause some who are not allergic to penicillin to be allergic to blue cheese. Don’t eat a moldy orange, by the way; some forms of the mold produce a lot of neurotoxin.

For people who are not allergic, a thought I had is that one could, perhaps treat heartburn or ulcers with cheese; perhaps even cancer? H-Pylori, the bacteria associated with heartburn, is effectively treated by amoxicillin, a penicillin variant. If a penicillin variant kills the bacteria, as seems plausible that penicillin cheese might too. Then too, amoxicillin, is found to reduce the risk of gastric cancer. If so, penicillin or penicillin cheese might prove to be a cancer protective. To my knowledge, this has never been studied, but it seems worth considering. The other, standard treatment for heartburn, pantoprazole / Protonix, is known to cause osteoporosis, and increase the risk of cancer.

A culture of Penicillium roqueforti. Most people are not allergic to it.

The blue in blue cheese is Penicillium roqueforti. Most people are not allergic.

Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a single spore of the mold killed the bacteria near it on a Petrie dish. He tried to produce significant quantities of the drug from the mold with limited success, but was able to halt disease in patients, and was able to interest others who had more skill in large-scale fungus growing. Kids looking for a good science fair project, might consider penicillin growing, penicillin allergy, treatment of stomach ailments using cheese, or anything else related to the drug. Three Swedish journals declared that penicillin was the most important discovery of the last 1000 years. It would be cool if the dilute form, the one available in your supermarket, could be shown to treat heartburn and/or cancer. Another drug you could study is Lysozyme, a chemical found in tears, in saliva, and in human milk, but not in cow milk. Alexander Fleming found that tears killed bacteria, as did penicillin. Lysozyme, the active ingredient of tears, is currently used to treat animals, but not humans.

Robert Buxbaum, November 9, 2017. Since starting work on this essay I’ve been eating blue cheese. It tastes good and seems to cure heartburn. As a personal note: my first science fair project (4th grade) involved growing molds on moistened bread. For an incubator, I used the underside of our home radiator. The location kept my mom from finding the experiment and throwing it out.

Genetically modified food not found to cause cancer.

It’s always nice when a study is retracted, especially so if the study alerts the world to a danger that is found to not exist. Retractions don’t happen often enough, I think, given that false positives should occur in at least 5% of all biological studies. Biological studies typically use 95% confidence limits, a confidence limit that indicates there will be false positives 5% of the time for the best-run versions (or 10% if both 5% tails are taken to be significant). These false positives will appear in 5-10% of all papers as an expected result of statistics, no matter how carefully the study is done, or how many rats used. Still, one hopes that researchers will check for confirmation from other researchers and other groups within the study. Neither check was not done in a well publicized, recent paper claiming genetically modified foods cause cancer. Worse yet, the experiment design was such that false positives were almost guaranteed.

Séralini published this book, “We are all Guinea Pigs,” simultaneously with the paper.

As reported in Nature, the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a 2012 paper by Gilles-Eric Séralini claiming that eating genetically modified (GM) maize causes cancerous tumors in rats despite “no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation.” I would not exactly say no evidence. For one, the choice of rats and length of the study was such that a 30% of the rats would be expected to get cancer and die even under the best of circumstances. Also, Séralini failed to mention that earlier studies had come to the opposite conclusion about GM foods. Even the same journal had published a review of 12 long-term studies, between 90 days and two years, that showed no harm from GM corn or other GM crops. Those reports didn’t get much press because it is hard to get excited at good news, still you’d have hoped the journal editors would demand their review, at least, would be referenced in a paper stating the contrary.

A wonderful book on understanding the correct and incorrect uses of statistics.

A wonderful book on understanding the correct and incorrect uses of statistics.

The main problem I found is that the study was organized to virtually guarantee false positives. Séralini took 200 rats and divided them into 20 groups of 10. Taking two groups of ten (one male, one female) as a control, he fed the other 18 groups of ten various doses of genetically modified grain, either alone of mixed with roundup, a pesticide often used with GM foods. Based on pure statistics, and 95% confidence, you should expect that, out of the 18 groups fed GM grain there is a 1- .9518 chance (60%) that at least one group will show cancer increase, and a similar 60% chance that at least one group will show cancer decrease at the 95% confidence level. Séralini’s study found both these results: One group, the female rats fed with 10% GM grain and no roundup, showed cancer increase; another group, the female rats fed 33% GM grain and no roundup, showed cancer decrease — both at the 95% confidence level. Séralini then dismissed the observation of cancer decrease, and published the inflammatory article and a companion book (“We are all Guinea Pigs,” pictured above) proclaiming that GM grain causes cancer. Better editors would have forced Séralini to acknowledge the observation of cancer decrease, or demanded he analyze the data by linear regression. If he had, Séralini would have found no net cancer effect. Instead he got to publish his bad statistics, and (since non of the counter studies were mentioned) unleashed a firestorm of GM grain products pulled from store shelves.

Did Séralini knowingly design a research method aimed to produce false positives? In a sense, I’d hope so; the alternative is pure ignorance. Séralini is a long-time, anti GM-activist. He claims he used few rats because he was not expecting to find any cancer — no previous tests on GM foods had suggested a cancer risk!? But this is mis-direction; no matter how many rats in each group, if you use 20 groups this way, there is a 60% chance you’ll find at least one group with cancer at the 95% confidence limit. (This is Poisson-type statistics see here). My suspicion is that Séralini knowingly gamed the experiments in an effort to save the world from something he was sure was bad. That he was a do-gooder twisting science for the greater good.

The most common reason for retraction is that the article has appeared elsewhere, either as a substantial repeat from the authors, or from other authors by plagiarism or coincidence. (BC Comics, by Johnny Hart, 11/25/10).

It’s important to cite previous work and aspects of the current work that may undermine the story you’d like to tell; BC Comics, Johnny Hart.

This was not the only major  retraction of the month, by the way. The Harrisburg Patriot & Union retracted its 1863 review of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a speech the editors originally panned as “silly remarks”, deserving “a veil of oblivion….” In a sense, it’s nice that they reconsidered, and “…have come to a different conclusion…” My guess is that the editors were originally motivated by do-gooder instinct; they hoped to shorten the war by panning the speech.

There is an entire blog devoted to retractions, by the way:  http://retractionwatch.com. A good friend, Richard Fezza alerted me to it. I went to high school with him, then through under-grad at Cooper Union, and to grad school at Princeton, where we both earned PhDs. We’ll probably end up in the same old-age home. Cooper Union tried to foster a skeptical attitude against group-think.

Robert Buxbaum, Dec 23, 2013. Here is a short essay on the correct way to do science, and how to organize experiments (randomly) to make biassed analysis less likely. I’ve also written on nearly normal statistics, and near poisson statistics. Plus on other random stuff in the science and art world: Time travel, anti-matter, the size of the universe, Surrealism, Architecture, Music.

Ozone hole shrinks to near minimum recorded size

The hole in the ozone layer, prominently displayed in Al Gore’s 2006 movie, an inconvenient truth has been oscillating in size and generally shrinking since 1996. It’s currently reached its second lowest size on record.

South pole ozone hole shrinks to 2nd smallest size on record. Credit: BIRA/IASB

South pole ozone hole (blue circle in photo), shrinks to its 2nd smallest size on record. Note outline of antarctica plus end of south america and africa. Photo Credit: BIRA/IASB

The reason for the oscillation is unknown. The ozone hole is small this year, was large for the last few years, and was slightly smaller in 2002. My guess is that it will be big again in 2013. Ozone is an alternate form of oxygen containing three oxygen atoms instead of the usual two. It is an unstable compound formed by ions in the upper atmosphere acting on regular oxygen. Though the ozone concentration in the atmosphere is low, ozone is important because it helps shield people from UV radiation — radiation that could otherwise cause cancer (it also has some positive effects on bones, etc.).

An atmospheric model of ozone chemistry implicated chlorofluorocarbons (freons) as a cause of observed ozone depletion. In the 1980s, this led to countries restricting the use of freon refrigerants. Perhaps these laws are related to the shrinkage of the ozone hole, perhaps not. There has been no net decrease in the amount of chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere, and the models that led to banning them did not predicted the ozone oscillations we now see are common — a fault also found with models of global warming and of stock market behavior. Our best computer models do not do well with oscillatory behaviors. As Alan Greenspan quipped, our best models successfully predicted eight of the last five recessions. Whatever the cause, the good news is that the ozone hole has closed, at least temporarily. Here’s why the sky is blue, and some thoughts on sunlight, radiation and health.

by Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, dedicated to bringing good news to the perpetually glum.

Slowing Cancer with Fish and Unhealth Food

Some 25 years ago, while still a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, I did some statistical work for a group in the Physiology department on the relationship between diet and cancer. The research involved giving cancer to groups of rats and feeding them different diets of the same calorie intake to see which promoted or slowed the disease. It had been determined that low-calorie diets slowed cancer growth, and were good for longevity in general, while overweight rats died young (true in humans too, by the way, though there’s a limit and starvation will kill you).

The group found that fish oil was generally good for you, but they found that there were several unhealthy foods that slowed cancer growth in rats. The statistics were clouded by the fact that cancer growth rates are not normally distributed, and I was brought in to help untangle the observations.

With help from probability paper (a favorite trick of mine), I confirmed that healthy rats fared better on healthily diets, but cancerous rats did better with some unhealth food. Sick or well, all rats did best with fish oil, and all rats did pretty well with olive oil, but the cancerous rats did better with lard or palm oil (normally an unhealthy diet) and very poorly with corn oil or canola, oils that are normally healthful. The results are published in several articles in the journals “Cancer” and “Cancer Research.”

Among vitamins, they found something similar (it was before I joined the group). Several anti-oxidizing vitamins, A, D and E made things worse for carcinogenic rats while being good for healthy rats (and for people in moderation). Moderation is key; too much of a good thing isn’t good, and a diet with too much fish oil promotes cancer.

What seems to be happening is that the cancer cells grow at the same rate with all of the equi-caloric diets, but that there was a difference the rate of natural cancer cell death. More cancer cells died when the rat was fed junk food oils than those fed a diet of corn oil and canola. Similarly, the reason anti-oxidizing vitamins hurt cancerous rats was that fewer cancer cells died when the rats were fed these vitamins. A working hypothesis is that the junk oils (and the fish oil) produced free radicals that did more damage to the cancer than to the rats. In healthy rats (and people), these free radicals are bad, promoting cell mutation, cell degradation, and sometimes cancer. But perhaps our body use these same free radicals to fight disease.

Larger amounts of vitamins A, D, and E hurt cancerous-rats by removing the free radicals they normally use fight the disease, or so our model went. Bad oils and fish-oil in moderation, with calorie intake held constant, helped slow the cancer, by a presumed mechanism of adding a few more free radicals. Fish oil, it can be assumed, killed some healthy cells in the healthy rats too, but not enough to cause problems when taken in moderation. Even healthy people are often benefitted by poisons like sunlight, coffee, alcohol and radiation.

At this point, a warning is in-order: Don’t rely on fish oil and lard as home remedies if you’ve got cancer. Rats are not people, and your calorie intake is not held artificially constant with no other treatments given. Get treated by a real doctor — he or she will use radiation and/ or real drugs, and those will form the right amount of free radicals, targeted to the right places. Our rats were given massive amounts of cancer and had no other treatment besides diet. Excess vitamin A has been shown to be bad for humans under treatment for lung cancer, and that’s perhaps because of the mechanism we imagine, or perhaps everything works by some other mechanism. However it works, a little fish in your diet is probably a good idea whether you are sick or well.

A simpler health trick is that it couldn’t hurt most Americans is a lower calorie diet, especially if combined with exercise. Dr. Mites, a colleague of mine in the department (now deceased at 90+) liked to say that, if exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most prescribed drug in America. There are few things that would benefit most Americans more than (moderate) exercise. There was a sign in the physiology office, perhaps his doing, “If it’s physical, it’s therapy.”

Anyway these are some useful things I learned as an associate professor in the physiology department at Michigan State. I ended up writing 30-35 physiology papers, e.g. on how cells crawl and cell regulation through architecture; and I met a lot of cool people. Perhaps I’ll blog more about health, biology, the body, or about non-normal statistics and probability paper. Please tell me what you’re interested in, or give me some keen insights of your own.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum is a Chemical Engineer who mostly works in hydrogen I’ve published some 75 technical papers, including two each in Science and Nature: fancy magazines that you’d normally have to pay for, but this blog is free. August 14, 2013

Chernobyl radiation appears to cure cancer

In a recent post about nuclear power, I mentioned that the health risks of nuclear power are low compared to the main alternatives: coal and natural gas. Even with scrubbing, the fumes from coal burning power plants are deadly once the cumulative effect on health over 1000 square miles is considered. And natural gas plants and pipes have fairly common explosions.

With this post I’d like to discuss a statistical fluke (or observation), that even with the worst type of nuclear accident, the broad area increased cancer incidence is generally too small to measure. The worst nuclear disaster we are ever likely to encounter was the explosion at Chernobyl. It occurred 27 years ago during a test of the safety shutdown system and sent a massive plume of radioactive core into the atmosphere. If any accident should increase the cancer rate of those around it, this should. Still, by fluke or not, the rate of thyroid cancer is higher in the US than in Belarus, close to the Chernobyl plant in the prime path of the wind. Thyroid cancer is likely the most excited cancer, enhanced by radio-iodine, and Chernobyl had the largest radio-iodine release to date. Thus, it’s easy to wonder why the rates of Thyroid cancer seem to suggest that the radiation cures cancer rather than causes it.

Thyroid Cancer Rates for Belarus and US; the effect of Chernobyl is less-than clear.

Thyroid Cancer Rates for Belarus and US; the effect of Chernobyl is less-than clear.

The chart above raises more questions than it answers. Note that the rate of thyroid cancer has doubled over the past few years, both in the US and in Belarus. Also note that the rate of cancer is 2 1/2 times as high in Pennsylvania as in Arkansas. One thought is test bias: perhaps we are  better at spotting cancer in the US than in Belarus, and perhaps better at spotting it in Pennsylvania than elsewhere. Perhaps. Another thought is coal. Areas that use a lot of coal tend to become sicker; Europe keeps getting sicker from its non-nuclear energy sources, Perhaps Pennsylvania (a coal state) uses more coal that Belarus (maybe).

Fukushima was a much less damaging accident, and much more recent. So far there has been no observed difference in cancer rate. As the reference below says: “there is no statistical evidence of a difference in thyroid cancer caused by the disaster.” This is not to say that explosions are OK. My company, REB Research, makes are high pressure, low temperature hydrogen-extracting membranes used to reduce the likelihood of hydrogen explosions in nuclear reactors; so far all the explosions have been hydrogen explosions.


R. E. Buxbaum, April 19, 2013; Here are some further, updated thoughts: radiation hormesis (and other hormesis)