are standing on the threshold of a new era in health care. In the near
future, new immune-boosting techniques will help us fortify our natural
resistance to life-shortening diseases caused by bacteria, viruses,
fungi, and cancer cells. Each of us will have a better chance of living
longer, with increased vigor and greatly improved health.
Aging, life extensions and cell regeneration appear to be related to an
intact and strong immune system. As the immune system ages, some of us
will die-or spend our later years in bad health-simply because our
defenses are down. What if we could bolster a flagging immune system so
it would perform with youthful vigor? That hope is looking more like an
eventuality as eye-opening evidence accumulates from laboratories
around the world.
Food supplements, herbs, exercise, stress reduction, and new
immune-stimulating formulations may fortify immune function. With this
support, we may be able to resist many diseases in middle and old age
as we did in youth.
Thymus gland: Controller of Immunity
Over the last three centuries, immune-stimulating vaccines, which
produce a mild dose of the disease, stimulate the immune system to
produce the appropriate disease-fighting antibodies. These vaccines
have quelled smallpox, polio, and measles. Scientists are working on
vaccines for cancer and the common cold.
We know the thymus gland produces T-lymphocytes, the white blood cells
responsible for cell-mediated immunity. Cell-mediated immunity refers
to immune mechanisms not controlled or mediated by antibodies.
Cell-mediated immunity defends the body against infection by mold-like
bacteria, yeast (including Candida albicans), fungi, parasites, and
viruses (including herpes simplex and Epstein Barr). Cell-mediated
immunity also protects against cancer and allergies.
The thymus gland also releases several hormones such as thymosin,
thymopoietin and serum thymic factor, which regulates many immune
The thymus gland, large in infants and children, atrophies as we grow
older. By age 20, it often starts shrinking. If a gland dries up, we
need to replace it. In other words, if we maintain normal physiology,
we prevent disease and pathology.
Protecting Thymus Function
Protecting the thymus is important. This gland is extremely susceptible
to free radicals and oxidation damage caused by stress, radiation,
infection, and chronic illness. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin
E, selenium, zinc and beta-carotene can prevent thymus shrinkage and
enhance cell-mediated immune functions.
Quality extracts of calf thymus tissue and various botanicals
effectively stimulate thymus gland activity. Calf thymus tissue has
been shown to significantly improve immune function. Herbs such as
Echinacea angustifolia, licorice and European mistletoe have profound
We replace the thyroid gland with thyroid hormone, the adrenal gland
with cortisone, the pancreas gland with insulin, and the ovaries with
estrogen and progesterone. However, physicians have not routinely
replaced the thymus gland. Yet thymus supplementation has been linked
to dramatic results in such varied conditions as asthma, hay fever,
allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome (Epstein Barr), herpes, condyloma
acuminatum, and hepatitis B and C. And this is just the tip of the
Biological Response Modifiers
Biological Response Modifiers (BRM), produced by the human body, are
also involved in immune function, BRM's are hormones, proteins, and
other substances that stimulate or regulate the incredibly intricate
workings of the immune system. Fifty BRM's are known at present. The
most studied group are the thymosins, hormones extracted from the
thymus gland. This "master gland" of the immune system converts regular
cells into specialized cells for fighting disease.
Allan Goldstein, Ph.D. chairman of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. began isolating
thymosins in the 1960's. Goldstein's Washington-based company, Alpha 1
Biomedicals Inc., is investigating the potential for successful
treatment of hepatitis B.
Milton G. Mutchnick, M.D., a gastroenterologist/hepatologist at Wayne
State University Medical School in Detroit, Michigan, has now converted
24 of 32 hepatitis B carriers to normal. Funded by an NIH grant,
Mutchnick used controlled studies with thymosin injection. In the
United States, the FDA has not yet approved thymus for treatment of
disease. In Europe, thymosins are routinely used in the treatment of
certain cancers, influenza, and infectious diseases such as herpes.
Goldstein believes that taking thymosins can enhance immunity
throughout old age.
Interferon, Interleukin, and Colony-Stimulating Factors
Another BRM is interferon, a family of hormones that regulates the
activity of T-cells, Alpha-interferon blocks the reproduction of some
viruses. The FDA has approved interferon for the treatment of hepatitis
C, hairy-cell leukemia and Kaposi's sarcoma (two kinds of cancer), and
genital warts. Interferon gamma is approved for treatment of a
hereditary immune disorder, chronic granulomatous disease.
Interleuken is another BRM. These hormones tell the appropriate immune
system cells to multiply once an invader has been captured and
identified. Interleuken-2 promotes the multiplication of T and B cells.
It safely and effectively boosts the potency of a hepatitis B vaccine.
Researchers at the National Cancer Institute have used a combination of
Interleuken-2 and Interleuken-2-stimulated NK (natural killer) cells to
treat patients with three types of cancer: malignant melanoma, kidney
cancer, and colon cancer.
Equally promising as immune boosters are a class of BRM's known as
colony-stimulating factors (CSDF), first discovered in the 1960's.
Manufactured by specific immune cells, their job is to stimulate the
development of immature bone marrow cells into functional immune system
components. These factors are used to stimulate the bone marrow after
transplantation or cancer chemotherapy. They also increase the
effectiveness of anti-AIDS drugs.
David Goode, M.D., chief of the Division of Hematology and Oncology at
the UCLA School of Medicine, says "CSF's may ultimately prove to be as
big a step to medicine as the introduction of antibiotics."
In the fall of 1990, three separate groups of researchers isolated a
protein that activates primitive bone marrow cells, known as stem
cells. The activated stem cells divide and differentiate into
progenitors, not only of the red cells that carry oxygen to the body's
tissues, but of every variety of cell in the immune system. This has
incredible potential to treat a variety of bone marrow failures from
cancer chemotherapy, radiation treatment, aplastic anemia and toxicity
from the anti-AIDS drug AZT.
Combinations of BRM's with vaccines or standard therapies (chemotherapy
drugs or radiation) in a "cocktail form" could be more effective than
any of the substances used alone. Astonishing results are occurring at
centers across the country with this approach.
Effects of Diet and Exercise
Although the connection between diet and immunity is still
controversial, many studies indicate the link is real. A research team
at the American Health Foundation in New York City found that reducing
fat consumption to 25 percent (from 40 percent) of total calories
increased the activity of NK cells by 49 percent. These are the cells
that attack viruses and incipient cancers.
A number of animal and human studies show vitamin C can also help
increase the immune system's ability to fight infection. Vitamin E
supplementation in people 60 and older increases immune system
responsiveness, according to nutritionist Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., of
the USDA's Human Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in
Boston. Immunologist Adrianne Benedick, Ph.D. of the pharmaceutical
giant, Hoffman-La Roche, tested vitamin E on rats. "Vitamin E is the
most important immune stimulant I have seen." Benedick said.
The immune system is also nourished by regular exercise. David Neiman,
Ph.D. and a research team at Loma Linda University in California showed
that exercise seems to prime the immune system for action. The
Institute for Aerobics in Dallas did an eight-year study of 10,000 men
and 3,000 women. They found that people who walked briskly for half an
hour every day, or an equivalent exercise, were less likely to die of
cancer. Moderation appears to be the key in exercise.
Effects of Mental Attitude
Mental attitude also influences health. There is a biochemical
connection between the brain and immune system. In 1976, Nicholas
Piotnikoff, Ph.D. of Oral Roberts University, found that certain types
of immune cells had receptors for endorphins-natural, opium-like
substances produced by the brain. Monocytes and macrophages have
receptors for virtually every known messenger chemical or
neurotransmitter produced by the brain.
ACTH, supposedly an exclusive product of the brains pituitary gland, is
also manufactured by immune system cells, according to J. Edwin
Blalock, Ph.D. Candace Pert, Ph.D. and Michael Ruff, Ph.D of the
National Institute of Mental Health, found that glia cells in the brain
had receptors for molecules produced by the immune system.
Promise of a Longer Healthier Life
Altering immune system cells in the laboratory to increase their
effectiveness holds great promise in the treatment of cancer. More
important, taking thymosins ina preventive way beginning in the 20s or
30s can stimulate the immune system and significantly prolong and
increase our health in general. A healthful, anti-oxidant-rich diet and
a lifelong commitment to regular exercise further strengthens immune
A recent eight-year, multi-center study linked atherosclerosis within
blood vessel walls with immune system failure. Most longevity studies
reveal that life extension depends on cell regeneration, which depends
on an intact immune system. An intact immune system depends, in return,
on thymus gland support and healthy lifestyle choices.
No question about it; we are standing on the threshold of a new era in
health care. It's an exciting time, with limitless possibilities.
B Burgstiner, M.D., was a board-certified gynecologist/obstetrician in
Savannah, Georgia. Dr. Burgstiner was a past president of the Medical
Association of Georgia and served as vice-chairman of the AMA's Georgia
Delegation. He was also a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons
and of the American College of Preventive Medicine.