We are grateful to Niall T McLaren Galloway, Professor of Urology at the Emory Continence Centre for writing this fascinating post introducing ‘symmetry seeking’ in health care. With particular emphasis on the commonality of hormones between species and the potentially dangerous effects of long acting hormones currently used in industrial agriculture and therefore entering the food chain, Niall gives us an intriguing insight into the subject matter of his forthcoming book Seeking Symmetry: Finding patters in human health (due August 2018 – register your interest to be informed on publication and receive 10% off your copy.)
Why worry about drugs for cattle?
Disturb an angry dog, and an outpouring of hormones immediately triggers alarm as the heart pounds faster and muscles tense. At once the whole body is brought to attention by a rush of adrenaline from the adrenal glands; the brain aroused, breathing quicker and pupils dilated as hormones course through the bloodstream triggering a cascade of effects preparing for immediate action of man and dog alike. The identical molecules of adrenaline released in both, triggered by sudden stress, and the ancient reflex chemical discharge into the blood stream, carried to all corners sounding the alarm to reset every organ and body part in readiness to face immediate threat.
My new book Symmetry Seeking explores these similarities and reveals how we are more similar than different from other mammals. Adrenaline is only one of many different hormones, primal chemical messengers shared by humans and mammals alike. Sex hormones cause adolescents to diverge in puberty, testosterone in boys to broaden the shoulder and estrogen in girls to widen the pelvis; for boys the larger nose, larynx and hairy chin, more muscle and less breast. For all adolescents, complexions and behaviors change and novel appetites are acquired as hormones – nature’s most powerful messengers – set the body’s growth on a new path. We share a universal currency not only with dogs and laboratory animals, but also with livestock, and these hormones are potent chemical actors able to trump other instructions and redirect animal and human cell biology to their purposes.
Hormones are ancient keys shared by all species, else how could a human key fit a rabbit’s lock or a frog’s to tell if you are pregnant?
Yet they do: a rabbit or a frog responds readily to even a tiny trace of b-HCG hormone found in a drop of human urine, because hormones not only speak deafeningly loudly, but in a shared tongue, putting each species in free intercourse with others.
Perhaps, you may be thinking, this particular hormone that proclaims conception is peculiar and exceptional. It signals a sentinel event, after all, directing an immediate change of course: that instead of shedding with menstrual bleeding, the lining of the uterus be retained and made receptive to the fertilized egg. This ancient hormone also signals the ovaries, thyroid, and breasts to align in concert with the new assignment and alerts the brain and appetite centers to prepare for feeding fetal growth. But, incredible as it may sound, other hormones are just as sweeping in their effects, speaking their universal language of commands that direct all aspects of metabolism from appetite and eating to mood, behavior and sexual bonding, penile erections and ovarian cycles, libido, pregnancy, childbirth and lactation – not only in humans, but in all mammals.
Insulin is another ancient hormone, well known for its role in the regulation of carbohydrate metabolism and for controlling blood-sugar levels. The insulin molecule consists of a string of only 51 amino acids, arranged like a clover leaf, and like other hormones, insulin’s structure varies little between species, so both pig and cow insulin can be used in treating diabetes. Pig insulin differs from human by only one amino acid substitution; cow by only three. When the human pancreas fails, the diabetic patient’s life depends on injected doses of insulin for survival. Symmetry seeking reveals medicine to be rich with examples of clinically active, naturally occurring molecules, harvested from diverse species and fed back to the human patient. And, as we will come to discover, hormone products like these can come not only from animals and fish, but also from certain kinds of plants.
Symmetry is quite striking here: human hormones converse in reciprocal dialogue with the hormones of rabbits and frogs and horses whisper back to us through “Premarin” hormone treatments, passing ancient messenger molecules targeted to trigger shared cell surface receptors and obligatory cascades of programmed cellular activity. Hormones may seem to speak softly, but make no mistake about how big a stick they carry, there is no more potent command for redirecting cellular activity.
Hormone preparations have a very important place in medical care, and are usually prescribed by doctors to address specific endocrine deficiency, such as hypothyroidism or growth retardation. Hormone preparations may be used to treat a host of problems; steroids, for instance, are hormones, often used to treat severe inflammation, and anti-diuretic hormone is prescribed to treat some cases of excessive urine production. In addition to genuine medical indications, hormones can also act as performance-enhancing agents, such as those making the news in doping scandals in the world of sports. Hemopoetin, for example, is the hormone that drives production of more red blood cells by the bone marrow, and it is effective in treating certain types of anemia, but it has also gained notoriety as a favored illicit shortcut to increased stamina and enhanced athletic performance.
The hormones of our own bodies are released in only tiny pulses, and their effects are very short lived, as they regulate our natural biorhythms in gentle rise and fall within carefully balanced, even-keel parameters. Exogenous hormones come from outside, usually unknowingly, as part of our diet and can have disturbing and disruptive impacts particularly in children. And as we consider industrial agricultural practice, we will learn that long acting synthetic hormones are used widely, particularly in the meat production and dairy industries, and that this deliberate application of potent long acting hormones in agriculture may present a human problem on a grand scale, spilling over from fattened livestock to fatten and sicken our children and drive unwanted growth and obesity.
In Seeking Symmetry: Finding patterns in human health we hope to spark an interdisciplinary exchange and offer a model to reveal new opportunities to improve human health. The book will apply symmetry seeking to practical examples from a few representative arenas, such as the reorganization of healthcare, problems in food, industrial farming, and the pharmaceutical industry. While the book will cite contemporary research, we have created a slender volume whose main objective is to spark new thinking and incite readers and researchers alike to make connections between existing data and their own experiences as human beings.
Niall T McLaren Galloway Associate Professor of Urology and Medical Director of the Emory Continence Center at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, May 2018