Can infectious agents trigger genetic diseases?
Autism does have indications, sort of smoking guns, of infectious causation. And we should be looking really hard to see what agents might be infecting the growing fetus during pregnancy.
What are the key developments in your field?
The final synthesis of evolution with the health sciences is going to affect daily life in dramatic ways. I think that a lot of the diseases that we haven't been able to control have been difficult to control because these organisms that cause them are so versatile evolutionarily. And so that means that when we try to use antibiotics against them, they evolve resistance to antibiotics. I think what we need to do is recognize that this is their characteristic, their versatility. And we have to use that characteristic to our advantage as opposed to theirs. So in other words if it has an evolutionary potential. We use that evolutionary potential to get the organism to evolve towards benignity.
How do disinfectants impact microbes?
Interesting question. We've talked about antibiotic resistance, but there's another level that needs to be discussed: resistance to the antiseptics and disinfectants that we use to keep the hospital sterile, the operating room sterile, and to clean our homes. There are many products on the shelves of grocery stores that say, "Antibacterial Action," "Kills 99.9 percent of the germs." And so I had a little seventh grader who did a science project testing these compounds. The directions said to dilute this two capfuls in a gallon of water. When she tested these "antibacterial" cleaning compounds against bacteria that she had isolated from her own bathroom, she found that in two out of three cases, the disinfectant had to be used full strength in order to kill the bacteria. That once you diluted it in water as instructed on the bottle, it had absolutely no efficacy against home microorganisms!
Should we regulate disinfectants?
I think the truth has to be told that if you're buying a solution, that the directions should say, "Best when used undiluted." I can't recall the name, but there was one that did work very well when diluted 1:10. So you have to have truth in advertisement. But of course it's not only a health factor, it's also an economic factor. If you think that it's going to work if you dilute 1:100, of course you're going to dilute it to save money.
Give some examples of successful gene therapy.
They've made the greatest advances in gene therapy in the dental field, actually. One example is for people with HIV. Usually, their death certificates states that they died from candidiasis, which is a fungal disease caused by yeast that babies or women in their urogenital tracts, have. But in an immuno-compromised person, it will grow from the mouth all the way through the digestive system so that the people cannot absorb nutrients.
And so what some scientists have come up with is taking the cells that produce spit, and taking a gene that encodes a peptide that they isolated from bacteria, and putting that gene inside those saliva cells, and then putting those cells back into the mouth. And now when the cells replicate, you have these cells producing an antifungal agent that the patient swallows along with his saliva, and it's killing the organisms that are lining the gastrointestinal tract.
It's not in wide use because there are some drawbacks of putting foreign DNA into human cells, but it shows great promise for alleviating some of the pain and suffering of people with immuno-compromised systems.
Can microbes cause hereditary diseases?
One example is the presence of chlamydial pneumonia, which is a small, intracellular bacteria that causes upper respiratory tract infections. They've now found this organism in the plaques of the arteries. And so they're looking at the cause and effect of chlamydial infections leading to arteriosclerosis.
In the past, one thought that cardiovascular disease of that nature was not necessarily heritable, but it did run in families. Now they've shown that in this case, that there is one organism that they have seen a direct correlation with the presence of this organism and the causation of disease early in life, with later development of arteriosclerosis. So I believe that the more we look in to this phenomena, the more we're going to find out that there are more diseases that are direct results of bacterial infection and microbial infection than we currently know about or currently believe to be so.
What are human pathogens?
Some viruses infect plants, others infect insect cells, and some are strictly human pathogens. Many of those human pathogens have been found to be associated with or to induce certain types of cancer. We've found instances where the virus has exchanged genetic material with human cells and left a little surprise package behind -- a protein that could in fact enhance the carcinogenic activity of say, an environmental insult to the body, thereby leading to cancer. These are called proto-oncogenes. And if these proto-oncogenes are turned on, they can actually bring about a cancerous state in the body.
What are "promiscuous plasmids?"
When we talk about promiscuous plasmids, we're talking about the 'host range,' of the plasmid. Some plasmids have a very restrictive host range -- they can only infect cells of their own kind, like E-coli. Promiscuous plasmids can transfer these resistance genes not only to their kind, they don't care who they infect, they're going to whoever happens to be handy. So they can really cause a lot of trouble.
Is cleanliness overly emphasized in modern society?
I think that there is a certain importance to being clean, but I also realize that being too clean is not the very best thing. We've all noticed -- and there are now some studies that were very recently published -- that certain socioeconomic groups in which the children are playing on the streets in mud and with animals seem to be pretty well protected against certain diseases, and that it's the wealthier children who come down with other diseases.
Will we ever outgrow antibiotics?
I don't think so. I think we're so dependent on them. Not many of us, I think, can remember what it was like in the pre-antibiotic stages. So many women died in childbirth and we really don't see that very often now. And that's a result of antibiotics.