Immune Health Of (Wo)Men and Monkeys
Just before the 2013 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, a newly released scientific article published in Vaccine was seized upon by nearly all the large media outlets; USA Today, CBS affiliates, Time, you name the media giant and they were running the story. What could possibly be so important you ask? A new breakthrough in cancer treatment? Has a new antibiotic been found that kills formerly resistant bacteria? Well no, actually the findings suggest that monkeys have a better response to vaccination when imbibing in a little alcohol.
So a group of monkeys walk into a bar… or rather, a lab at Oregon Health and Science University where Dr. Ilhem Messaoudi (now at UC Riverside) and colleagues explored the question of the effects of alcohol on vaccination response. Rhesus macaque monkeys were given the option of drinking a 4% alcohol solution, tracked over 14 months and then categorized by their levels of consumption. As a measure of the effects of the alcohol on the immune system, the researchers vaccinated the monkeys against small pox and then re-vaccinated and measured the differences in response. The researchers concluded that monkeys that drank the most alcohol with blood levels similar to the human legal limit of 0.08 had less of a response to the vaccination challenge than those monkeys with lower levels of blood alcohol. In fact, the researchers concluded that the moderate drinkers had a better response to the vaccine challenge than did the control monkeys that drank no alcohol but instead were offered sugar water. These are the facts as released by Todd Murphy of OHSU.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this study, in fact it’s a very interesting probing of the rhesus macaque immune health. It’s the interpretation and translation of the findings into assumptions about humans that I take issue with. It was a media bonanza of “feel good about yourself” and “it’s ok to have that drink, it’s good for you” articles based on little to no scientific evidence that the observations made of the monkeys was relevant to humans. The titles read “Moderate drinking boosts immune system,” “Alcohol can boost your immune system,” and “Raise a glass to 2014, because moderate drinking boosts your immune system.” Let’s explore these findings a little bit more and why I think you can’t make the conclusion that what’s good for the monkey is good for the man (or woman).
First, it’s obvious, we’re humans and the research subjects were monkeys and while we share many similarities, we are still very different, including our immune health. Even among humans our immune systems vary widely due to genetic differences and many non-genetic factors leading to different states of immune health. Not to mention the wide range of immune responses to different vaccines observed among humans. And second, is response to a vaccine the same as “boosting your immune system?” As an immunologist I would argue that it is not. Vaccines work by provoking the immune system into a pathogen-specific response that is robust enough to lead to immunologic memory. That’s right, your immune system can remember what little microbial goober made it sick and mount a better, faster response the next time. Vaccines are tricky, they have to get the entire spectrum of immune response activated but NOT make you sick. To this end, something called an adjuvant is added to vaccines and it’s job is to act like an irritant to help provoke the immune response. I wouldn’t suggest that people use these chemical adjuvants to “boost” their immune health and perhaps the alcohol in this study was acting no differently than an adjuvant.
Here’s what I would want to know…if having a drink really boosts my immune health, then if the guy next to me at the bar has a nasty flu am I less likely to get it? And this isn’t at all what this study looked at. There are ways of answering this question and I would be a lot more comfortable with the media’s headlines had they been. But the absence of this data highlights what is all too commonly seen in the media – hype. The problem is, we buy into it, in a big way! And folks, this is serious because we’re talking about our health. So while I’ve used this example to make my case, this isn’t the exception, articles and headlines like these run rampant in the media on a nearly daily basis. What can you do? Hopefully, having read this post you are now more aware of this issue and you can start by scrutinizing articles a little more carefully. Ask yourself questions like; who were the study participants? are they like me? were lots of individuals involved or just a few? and what question did the study really answer? At the very least, if a headline sounds to good to be true, it probably is.
Until next time, keep well!
~ Dr. Tobi Schmidt