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Built to Last?

April 12, 2007 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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When just 15 years old, he noticed that his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor suffering from Alzheimer's disease, seemed to feel better after giving blood.

He had a nagging feeling that somehow the two were linked, and so the young boy went to his grandfather's doctors to voice his suspicions. But he was turned away. They told him to go home, draw pictures, bake some cookies and leave the medicine to them.

Sharon Moalem went home, but he never forgot his theories and never gave up trying to find an answer. In time, after spending hours and hours at the library, he learned about an hereditary condition called Hemochromatosis, a disorder that causes iron to build up in the body, sometimes called "iron overload."

By giving blood and ridding his body of excess iron, his grandfather felt better, physically and emotionally.

Years later, as Moalem grew to become a noted researcher in the fields of human physiology, and the emerging fields of neurogenetics and evolutionary medicine, he discovered a new genetic association for familial Alzheimer's disease.

Relates Moalem: "It became the basis for my Ph.D., and we found that there is, indeed, a connection. It's very complicated but, in some sense, I was right."

Today, Moalem's research has led to his publishing papers in a wide variety of fields, from honeybee immunology to the evolutionary advantages of disease. Additionally, he's in the process of finishing his medical training at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Looking for Answers
Seems that Moalem is right about a great many things not fully realized before. In his book, Survival of the Sickest, Moalem (with Jonathan Prince) delves into the simultaneous evolution of humanity and disease to reveal the astonishing ways human bodies are built to survive.

He answers the riddles behind many diseases that seem to be inexplicably wired into the genetic code, starting with the biggest riddle of them all: If natural selection is supposed to get rid of harmful genetic traits, why are there so many hereditary diseases in the first place?

For example, a great many Asians have an almost allergic reaction to alcohol, while this condition is virtually non-existent among Europeans. Why? And why do some people get sick more than others? And why doesn't the low-carb diet work for everyone?

And then there's the panic that swept across Europe as the Bubonic Plague spread from town to town. Invariably, Moalem says, people looked for someone to blame. First, it was Jews, and then it was witches.

"It's possible," the author writes, "that practices related to the observance of Passover helped to protect Jewish neighborhoods from the plague.

As part of its observance, Jews do not eat leavened bread and remove all traces of it from their homes."

It may be, Moalem continues, that this "spring cleaning of grain stores may have helped to protect Jews from the plague, by decreasing their exposure to rats hunting for food -- rats that carried the plague."

Through an extremely readable account of evolutionary history, Moalem reveals how many of the conditions people think of as diseases or health problems -- including diabetes, high cholesterol and sickle-cell anemia -- actually gave their ancestors a leg up in the survival sweepstakes. Without them, he says, humans may not have survived catastrophic events, such as famine or severe climate change, or simply may not have thrived in their local environments.

From there, his book goes on to debunk the modern myth that DNA is destiny, explaining that the body actually has the power to turn specific genes on or off -- or even rewrite its own DNA!

Moalem is poised to author two more books, one dealing with the evolution of food and the other with the evolution of sexuality, demonstrating just how little modern medicine understands human health. 

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