Vital Record Your source for health news from the Texas A&M Health Science Center 2015-08-28T14:01:29Z Dorian Martin <![CDATA[Biotech boot camp helps researchers move innovative discoveries to market]]> 2015-08-27T20:03:58Z 2015-08-28T14:01:29Z Texas A&M Health Science Center’s faculty members regularly pursue innovative translational research to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing health conditions. However, some of these groundbreaking discoveries do not successfully move from the bench to the bedside because researchers find they have limited training when it comes to commercialization]]>

Texas A&M Health Science Center’s (TAMHSC) faculty members regularly pursue innovative translational research to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing health conditions. However, some of these groundbreaking discoveries do not successfully move from the bench to the bedside because researchers find they have limited training when it comes to commercialization.

Robert C. Alaniz, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, offers his own situation as an example of the challenges faculty face when commercializing their research. “My research colleague and I are unashamed scientists. We think about science every day; we love doing science and we know how to do it very well,” he said. “However, we need to learn more about how to turn our science into a business.”

Researcher drawing on board.

Two TAMHSC research teams spent the summer participating in a Medical Technology Lean Start Up course, which is an innovative and intensive eight-week life sciences program offered through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program.

This challenge among researchers is common. “We have many faculty members who are interested but have not yet been through the process of commercializing a new technology,” said LauraLee Hughes, executive director of TAMHSC’s Office of Technology Translation . “They are not necessarily aware of all the different considerations that they’ll face from a technical, business, regulatory and legal perspective when commercializing a new technology. What we’re trying to do at the HSC is develop programs that help to educate and support our faculty on these different activities.”

Teaching the teachers: Bringing business concepts to researchers

To that end, two TAMHSC research teams spent the summer participating in a Medical Technology Lean Start Up course, which is an innovative and intensive eight-week life sciences program offered through the National Science Foundation I-Corps program. This particular program was offered regionally through a collective partnership between the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, the University of Texas-Austin, Rice University and Texas Tech University.

The I-Corps program provides researchers with real-world, hands-on learning so they can reduce commercialization risks during their company’s early stages. “The I-Corps program is really designed to train faculty members who have promising research on how to commercialize their technology,” Hughes said. “The program essentially provides them with the curriculum, mentors, and resources needed to understand their technology from a commercialization perspective, identify who their customer is and then ultimately map out their plan for commercialization before they actually go through it.”

The program requires each research team to talk to at least 70 primary and secondary customers to determine whether a market exists for their product. Participants also look at other elements of bringing their discovery to market, including assessing the regulatory challenges and identifying the process to begin clinical development and ultimately sale of their product.

Participation in the regional I-Corps program also serves as a launch pad for additional opportunities. For example, the TAMHSC teams can now apply for the national I-Corps program, which would provide additional opportunities to conduct customer research in another region in the United States. These teams also are eligible to receive $50,000 in seed funding for their companies.

Microbiota and chronic conditions

Alaniz and Arul Jayaraman, Ph.D., a Texas A&M professor of chemical engineering, took part in the I-Corps program to learn how to commercialize the discoveries based on their research on the microbiota found in the human gut. Their discoveries have great potential to lead to treatments for a wide range of conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and some forms of cancer.

The pair, who first collaborated in 2010, worked with TAMHSC to cofound Fortis Biosciences in 2013 in order to move their research to market. However, the researchers quickly found they needed more information about the commercialization process and specific customer segments so they applied for the I-Corps program. Other Fortis team members include Hughes, who serves as the industry mentor, and Rani Menon, Ph.D., who performs microbiota research as a post-doctoral fellow in Jayaraman’s lab and is the team’s entrepreneurial lead.

Jaw rehabilitation technology

The second TAMHSC team involved in the I-Corps program is developing a robotic solution for jaw rehabilitation. This device, which is the brain child of Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station graduate assistant Michael Young, performs diagnostics on jaw abnormalities such as temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) and then provides targeted therapies.

Young previously worked with Start-Up Aggieland, which is offered through Mays Business School, to begin developing a business plan for his company, Life Motion Technologies. He received seed funding for the endeavor from Mays Business School’s Student Seed Fund and Maroon X Accelerator Program. The team’s participation in the I-Corps program helps drive the next steps for commercialization. The team includes: Lynne Opperman, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical science at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, who participates as the team’s industry mentor; Raktim Bhattacharya, Ph.D., a Texas A&M associate professor in aerospace engineering, who serves as the team’s principal investigator; and Ritesh Bhattacharjee, a graduate student in Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, who works with Young as the team’s entrepreneurial lead.

Learning on several levels

Both TAMHSC teams already see multiple benefits from participating in the program. In the near term, teams are uncovering critical information that can hamper their entrance into the marketplace. For instance, the Fortis team refined their plans several times based on the data coming from the I-Corp’s interviews. The researchers learned that their initially identified customer base was not interested in changing their medication, even though proven long-term side effects exist with the currently available drugs. However, these interviews also identified an unmet need in an emerging market of patients with a specific condition who don’t qualify for or can’t afford currently available therapies, thus opening up new avenues for commercialization.

Participants also leave the I-Corps program with important knowledge and tools that they can share in their classrooms and laboratories. “I wanted to participate in the program because I believe my students have an interesting technology,” Opperman said. “I also wanted to learn the I-Corp process for product development and commercialization so that I could mentor others at the Baylor College of Dentistry.”

Participation in the I-Corps program also helps researchers think about funding options for the work they do in the laboratory. “Understanding when one’s research has commercial potential and being able to participate in the intellectual property development and commercialization process makes faculty more valuable to their institutions and gives them opportunities to set up collaborations with industry,” Opperman said. “These collaborations can lead to alternate funding sources at a time when smaller and smaller numbers of grants submitted to regular federal funding agencies are being funded.”

Ultimately, the I-Corps program may help improve the quality of the research being produced by TAMHSC researchers. “Participating in this program has made us less naive and more aware of all aspects of product development, not just the creation of a device or drug,” Opperman said. “I believe this program has made our research approach more comprehensive and robust.”

The TAMHSC teams still have work to do after the I-Corps regional program ends. “Our expectation is that these teams will continue the customer discovery process and utilize that information to further develop the business model for their technology or start-up,” Hughes said. “Furthermore, we hope that the information they have gained from the I-Corps experience will position them to be more competitive when seeking funding to continue development of their respective technologies.”

Lauren Thompson <![CDATA[The computer will see you now. Could technology replace doctors?]]> 2015-08-27T16:57:58Z 2015-08-27T16:57:58Z Wearables are turning our daily health routines into a game, simultaneously making it easier for us to track and share our health data. According to experts at Texas A&M Health Science Center, such devices could ultimately revolutionize the way we treat patients. ]]>

It’s true. Health care technology is transforming at record speeds, almost at pace with Apple’s release of a new iPhone. A digitally globalized world means more power than ever is in the hands of the patient. Around one in 10 Americans wear some form of technology on a daily basis, whether it’s a smart-phone or a device to track medical information.

Stethoscope on computer.

Will wearable technology revolutionize the way we treat patients? According to Mark Benden, C.P.E. Ph.D., the answer is quite simple. Yes.

It may sound like the premise of a science fiction film, but Mark Benden, C.P.E., Ph.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health, director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center and member of the Center for Remote Healthcare Technologies and Systems, believes wearable technology is rapidly approaching the point where devices become omniscient about a patient’s needs and personal habits.

“We see wearable devices on a daily basis. The most common devices – like the Fitbit –are built-in mechanisms that communicate with your cell phone. Soon, we will have devices in all environments – they will monitor us in our homes, while we’re at work and during our personal lives. As these different devices ‘talk’ to each other, they will be able to know people’s habits and practices. Essentially, they will coach and motivate patients,” Benden said.

And in health care, this type of scientific advancement is powerful. With more than 140 million Americans living with at least one chronic medical condition, these devices could keep patients out of the hospital and monitored on a routine basis.

Some of these devices are already a reality. According to Benden, clinicians use devices for type I and type 2 diabetes that monitor the conditions non-invasively. “There’s a device called Spire that clips to your waist and monitors stress levels. We’ve also seen doctors use implantable devices in patients with heart disease that monitor, track and record data on the patient’s condition.”

“Wearables are ‘on’ us all the time,” Benden said. “But, in three to five years they will be on and ‘attached’ to us. I expect we will see progress like a transdermal tattoo to monitor blood sugar and nicotine levels, or contact lenses that detect biomarkers for certain conditions. We will also see a rise in implantable devices powered by movement, blood flow or breathing.”

For Benden, the potential in technology is especially important for disease prevention. “Right now, health care in our nation really consists of ‘sick-care.’ While there are many conditions that can’t be prevented, the majority of the health care world is focused on diagnosing and treating bad outcomes, and we don’t put enough focus on the prevention side of health care,” he said.

And prevention is where technology could be a game-changer. Most people have the knowledge of what they need to do to make a change, but they often don’t follow through. “In five to 10 years I think the majority of devices will be sentient and omni-present,” Benden said. There are a variety of triggers for different conditions, but with the interconnectivity of technology, our devices will be able to intervene before we perform the undesirable behavior or unhealthy outcome.”

Benden said one such example is a device that could help a person who is struggling to quit smoking. “Current tech that detects cigarette smoke and warns the person not to smoke is helpful, but for prevention, we need devices that recognize a habit or routine that is leading up to us taking a smoke break and then intervening before we get to the point of lighting up. We make daily choices for our health, and the key is making the right choices consistently. Most things we treat ­– like lung cancer caused by smoking – are preventable. Devices will help encourage us to make the correct choices for our health.”

How will the rise of the machine affect relationships with our doctor? Benden believes remote medicine is part of the future of health care.

“Many people don’t think to tell their health care provider about conditions or situations impacting their health. If they wear a device, the tracker will automatically know all of their habits 24/7 and a computer algorithm can record these habits,” Benden said.

According to Benden, we can expect a doctor to be on the receiving end of this data, and the bulk of the work will move from the doctor to the computer. “The computer will be able to provide much more data analysis and will outshine our greatest clinicians’ diagnostic abilities due to its ability to process and integrate huge streams of data,” Benden said. “The potential for this technology is extremely significant and the power of information will be integral for disease prevention and treatment.”

Lindsey Hendrix <![CDATA[Help with rising medication costs]]> 2015-08-26T18:10:30Z 2015-08-26T18:10:30Z Rising medication costs can be devastating for those with multiple prescriptions, but there is help. The Texas A&M Health Science Center's Medication Assistance Program has helped thousands in South Texas obtain low cost—and even free—medications]]>

Sandra Garcia’s phone rings in her office for the second time in ten minutes. On the other end is yet another person who cannot afford next month’s supply of insulin, a lifesaving injectable for people living with diabetes. Rising prescription drug costs have spurred alarm in Garcia’s clientele, but she confidently assures she will do all she can to help.

woman explains to another how to fill out an application for low cost medications

CBHEC’s Medication Assistance Program helps clients obtain prescription medications at a reduced or no cost.

As program coordinator of the Medication Assistance Program of the Texas A&M Health Science Center Coastal Bend Health Education Center (CBHEC), Garcia has assisted hundreds of uninsured and underinsured South Texas residents with obtaining their prescription medications – including insulin – at a low or no cost, despite rising prices caused by a number of recent changes in the pharmaceutical industry.

“We have seen more and more clients coming to us needing assistance with insulin,” she said. “Most of them don’t have insurance, but even some insurance does not cover insulin, and we can help those individuals, too.”

People who are considered underinsured have health benefits that do not adequately cover all of their medical expenses. For these people, some prescriptions may be covered while others are not, or they might have high out-of-pocket expenses. Unfortunately, many people don’t discover they are underinsured until an emergency occurs or they are faced with a serious illness, like diabetes, that requires prescriptions that are not covered by their insurance.

The cost for insulin without insurance coverage is anywhere from $200 to $500 per month and higher, depending on the amount an individual needs to keep his or her diabetes under control. This can be devastating for those whose income lies below federal poverty thresholds, but, according to the American Diabetes Association, poverty and type 2 diabetes are tightly linked.

More than 17 percent of Texas residents live below the poverty level (compared to 14.5 percent nationwide). At 38.3 percent, Brooks County, Texas, is the poorest county within CBHEC’s service area and third highest in the state for poverty (Willacy County is first with 40 percent, followed by Starr at 39.2 percent). On average, the Medication Assistance Program saves each of its clients in Brooks County about $2,500 a year on prescriptions. Since 2010, this has added up to $4.3 million in prescription cost savings for residents of Brooks County, not including the nearly $700,000 in savings so far this year. In total, 5,276 people across the program’s 20-county service area have saved more than $14.6 million in prescription costs since 2010.

The program’s staff is able to lower their clients’ prescription costs by assisting them with filling out lengthy and often complex applications that offer a limited supply of free or low-cost medications through pharmaceutical companies’ patient assistance programs. They also connect clients with a number of other resources available through retail pharmacies and indigent programs. The resources and expertise of CBHEC’s Medication Assistance Program staff allow them to track down the lowest possible cost for medications that treat not only diabetes, but also cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, mental health, chronic pain, and nearly every other disease state.

“Some of our clients have up to fifteen different medications and have to alternate them on a monthly basis because they can’t afford to pay for all of them at once, but we are able to find some of their medications for as low as $4,” said Eslanda Trevino, a community health worker with CBHEC’s Medication Assistance Program in Falfurrias, Texas.

And for those who need insulin? Garcia says they can help people get it at absolutely no cost to them.

The Medication Assistance Program has offices in Corpus Christi, Falfurrias, Kingsville, Victoria, and Cuero, Texas to assist low-income residents in and around these areas. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call toll free at 1-866-524-1408.

Jennifer Fuentes <![CDATA[Investigating the color sustainability of endodontic materials]]> 2015-08-26T14:42:40Z 2015-08-26T14:42:40Z In today’s world of modern dentistry, endodontic treatments such as vital pulp therapies and root canals can breathe new life into a tooth that otherwise might be lost. There’s just one problem: Certain materials used in these procedures can cause discoloration of the teeth, most often to an undesirable shade of gray or even blue]]>
Esther Oluwo, a third-year dental student

Esther Oluwo, a third-year dental student whose research won top honors from the Student National Dental Association

In today’s world of modern dentistry, endodontic treatments such as vital pulp therapies and root canals can breathe new life into a tooth that otherwise might be lost. There’s just one problem: Certain materials used in these procedures can cause discoloration of the teeth, most often to an undesirable shade of gray or even blue. Since these materials are packed inside the tooth, the darkened hue shines through the enamel. The only way to get rid of it is to bleach the tooth or cover it with a crown, but that only works in permanent teeth.

It’s an issue that Esther Oluwo, a third-year student at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, understands well. She spent most of summer 2014 testing the color sustainability of several products used in these procedures. The findings were telling; they recently earned her first place in the 2015 Student National Dental Association scientific poster competition during the July annual session of the group’s professional counterpart — the National Dental Association.

Oluwo, a participant in the Predoctoral Research Training Fellowship program at TAMBCD, spent the course of several weeks meticulously examining pellet-size portions of some of the most commonly-used root and pulp treatment materials on the market today: Biodentine, White ProRoot MTA, and bioceramics MTA Plus and NeoMTA Plus. She then exposed those samples to substances commonly found in the mouth, like saliva and blood, as well as compounds used in clinical procedures, such as sodium hypochlorite — bleach — used to irrigate a tooth after removing damaged pulp tissue, and formocresol, which is commonly used in primary teeth pulpotomies.

“We wanted to find out what was causing the teeth to change color and out of all the materials, which one changes color the least,” explains Oluwo.

Findings revealed significant darkening in the presence of formocresol, which gives dentists an immediate takeaway to avoid this substance in combination with the tested endodontic materials. Other materials showed varying discoloration in combination with substances like saliva and saline.

“This is clinically relevant because now clinicians can make more informed decisions when treating patients,” Oluwo says. “The dentist can look at the materials and compare to determine which one they would like to use to treat their patients.”

Next steps, Oluwo suggests, could include looking at how much of the culprit materials it takes to cause discoloration.

Her research builds upon multiple projects at the college evaluating color stability of current and emerging endodontic materials. It’s a hot topic, as response to the research has been strong: Oluwo won first place in the TAMBCD Research Scholars Day dental student poster competition this spring and will present at the Hinman Student Research Symposium in the fall.

Lynne Opperman, Ph.D., B.Sc., professor and director of the Office of Technology Development, served as faculty mentor for the project and says research opportunities like Oluwo’s offer an added benefit for students.

“It’s a really good experience for students to understand product development when as clinicians they get a sheet saying, ‘I’ve got this great, fabulous new material,’ and determine whether great experiments were done, or not so great experiments,” Opperman says. “It allows them to understand the process and critically assess the work done on those materials.”

Katherine Hancock <![CDATA[Dedicated to service: A path from military to medicine]]> 2015-08-25T14:26:51Z 2015-08-25T13:30:21Z Texas A&M College of Medicine recognizes its first-ever Tillman Military Scholar, Michael Weipert, one of 60 U.S. active duty service members, veterans and military spouses honored for their service, leadership and academic excellence]]>

For the recent Tillman Scholar Michael Weipert, the path to medical school has been a long and winding road.

As a teenager, Weipert knew he wanted to be a doctor, but a sense of service led him to the military, and even further from applying to medical school. By the time he was able to apply, the process seemed muddy, especially since he was on the other side of the world.

As an Eagle Scout in high school, Weipert worked on a project for a local children’s hospital. He made thousands of wooden blocks for a specialized area of the hospital created for children with severe allergies to plastic and dyes – often found in many store-bought toys. He says spending time in the hospital and making a contribution to others’ lives was when he first realized he wanted to be a doctor.

During college, Weipert chose a pre-med major. He also joined the reserves. During a service mission to Russia he became fluent in Russian and volunteered at a children’s cancer hospital.

“While the children’s hospital back home certainly sparked my fire to become a doctor, the mission in Russia really lit a fire in me,” Weipert said. “These kids had nothing to do. The family was in charge of feeding them, so they’d drop off some bread for the week and then have to go back to work. The kids were left to spend their downtime in a big, empty auditorium with nothing but one small T.V. and no chairs. They just sat there, around that one small T.V. So we brought them board games and played with them, and I started juggling and performing magic tricks to entertain them. I just wanted to ease their suffering however we could.”

That trip to Russia did two things for Weipert: solidified his desire to give back and gave him the ability to speak Russian fluently.

Just before Weipert graduated college as a pre-med major, the Twin Towers fell on September 11th. He put everything on hold for graduation and medical school, and commissioned with the U.S. Army. Because he was fluent in Russian, Weipert was able to test out of course work, graduate early with a degree in Russian Studies and enter flight school with the Army, first for helicopters, then for fixed wing aircraft.

It was while flying for the Army that Weipert met Aaron Buzzard, M.D., a military intelligence aviation physician for the Army. It was a relationship that would ultimately help Weipert reignite that fire to become a doctor. Weipert and Buzzard deployed three times together in the Middle East. Weipert began shadowing Buzzard and volunteering in the medical units.

“He was shadowing with me one day while we were deployed and there was a suicide bombing,” Buzzard said. “As they brought in the soldiers, one came to us on a gurney and when we looked under the blanket, his leg had been blown up below the knee and he had a tourniquet on his upper leg.”

“I asked him to hold the leg as we took the tourniquet off,” added Buzzard. “We had to amputate the leg. Weipert continued to help us through other patients that day, and we didn’t lose anyone. Since that moment, he’s been dedicated to becoming a doctor.”

Buzzard retired from the military and is now an emergency physician and Regional EMS Medical Director at the St. Joseph Regional Health Center in Bryan, Texas, and clinical assistant professor with the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

When Weipert set his mind on going to medical school after working with Buzzard, he applied to about 10 schools, mostly in Texas.

But he didn’t get in to any schools. He didn’t even get an interview.

“Weipert is a dedicated kind of guy,” Buzzard said. “But that’s who you want as a doctor – you want someone who will say ‘I’m going to fix this person’ – and he’s got that determination, he’s got all the personality traits of a great doctor.”

That determination caused Weipert to reapply and eventually led him to the office of Leila Diaz, assistant dean for admissions at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. He wanted to know what he needed to do to become a better applicant and hopefully get an interview. She walked him through the admissions process, gave him advice on what he could do to strengthen his application – how he could highlight the extraordinary experiences he had that set him apart from most other applicants.

“I didn’t want to give up, so I called A&M and asked to talk to someone,” Weipert explained. “Leila sat me down and explained everything I’d done wrong and the mistakes I made. She walked me through the correct process and helped me see how I could get my scores up. Things I never would have known if I hadn’t talked to her. I was deployed, so it was pretty tedious to get everything in order.”

“I’ve worked several times with active duty applicants,” Diaz said. “It’s a particularly challenging situation for them since they are often in different places every few years or deployed. It isn’t always easy for them to obtain advising or address the changes they need to make from so far away. They have to be particularly dedicated to the process, but I have seen them make great strides in a reapplication, like Mike [Weipert] did. Helping all applicants is what we do, but it is especially an honor to do what we can to help men and women in the military fulfill their dreams of becoming physicians.”

To improve his application, Weipert studied for the MCAT during and in between flights, and made up about 100 course credits at night to increase his GPA. Weipert worked with Diaz for over a year, getting her advice and expertise on the application process.

“I took classes in Arizona, statistics online while in Iraq – by the time I applied I had credit from about nine different colleges,” Weipert added.

Weipert applied to Texas A&M College of Medicine again, and this time he was invited to interview. But Weipert was deployed, and interviews were conducted in-person on one of the college campuses across Texas. He couldn’t attend.

“I didn’t know what to do, and after I explained my situation and talked with Leila, A&M let me interview by phone,” Weipert explained. “No other school let me do that. I was in the Middle East serving my country, and they understood my situation. I feel like they really took the time to get to know me.”

The hard work paid off and after his interviews, Weipert was accepted to the Texas A&M College of Medicine. But because of his deployment, he had to defer for another year.

It was during that time that Diaz received a package at her office. It was an American flag with a certificate from the U.S. Army. One night while on a mission, Weipert told the story of how Diaz was instrumental in his efforts to apply to medical school to his commanding officer. The officer was so moved by her efforts to help one of his soldiers that he flew a flag in her honor the next day during a reconnaissance mission to find one of the United States’ most wanted fugitives in Iraq. The mission was successful, and the flag was officially named in her honor.

“It’s the most powerful expression of ‘thank you’ that I’ve received,” Diaz said. “It was a complete surprise and helped me see just how much helping someone accomplish their dreams and goals can mean. I worked with Mike [Weipert] for almost two years, much of that time while he was deployed, and we still keep in touch now that he attends school here – it is so humbling to know that I can help someone in this way. Working with applicants like Mike [Weipert] make my career so fulfilling.”

At the Texas A&M College of Medicine, Weipert is now in his third year of medical school and working toward his goal to become a Military Emergency Medicine Physician to provide casualty care for wounded troops on the front lines.

“My ambition in life is to ease suffering and help as many people as I possibly can,” Weipert said.

Lauren Thompson <![CDATA[You Asked: Why can’t I get pregnant?]]> 2015-08-24T15:34:57Z 2015-08-20T16:20:26Z Three minutes. You can easily spend this seemingly insignificant amount of time hitting the snooze button or scrolling through your phone. But for a couple trying to get pregnant, the three-minute wait for a positive or negative reading on a pregnancy test is agonizing]]>

Woman lying on bed hugging her knees to her chest.Three minutes. You can easily spend this seemingly insignificant amount of time hitting the snooze button or scrolling through your phone. But for a couple trying to get pregnant, the three-minute wait for a positive or negative reading on a pregnancy test is agonizing.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 7.5 percent of men will see a fertility doctor in their lifetime–and at least 12 percent of women will struggle with fertility problems that impact conception and carrying a pregnancy to term.

Jeanne Ruiz, Ph.D., women’s health practitioner for the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing and Academy of Nursing Fellow, breaks down many common (and a few surprising) reasons why couples have trouble getting pregnant.

Infertility–not just a “woman’s condition”

 A frequent misconception about infertility is that the problem always starts with the woman. “It takes more than just a female to conceive,” Ruiz said. In fact, infertility in men is quite prevalent. In approximately 40 percent of infertile couples, males are either the sole cause or a contributing cause of infertility.

“It’s much easier to start with the males and rule out problems from there,” Ruiz said. “Males should begin testing first because they may have motility issues or not enough sperm. It’s always easiest to start with the less expensive, less painful treatment.”

Numbers matter: Especially your age and weight

For women, there are a variety of reasons that determine normal hormonal function. A woman is born with the exact number of eggs she needs for the rest of her life. With every year that passes, more eggs are used, and your ovaries become less able to release eggs.

“Age is an important factor to look at when determining potential fertility problems for women,” Ruiz said. “High blood pressure and diabetes are a risk for pregnancies and for women in general. Unfortunately the risk for these conditions increases with age. You have also have more eggs when you are younger compared to when you’re older.”

As a woman ages, her metabolism slows considerably which contributes to weight gain. “As you age you tend to gain more weight. This is a big issue. To increase your chances of conception you need to be an average weight.” Ruiz said.

Ruiz also emphasized the importance of a healthy BMI (body mass index).“BMI is a huge indicator of over-nutrition and under-nutrition. Both are important to keep in mind when maintaining a pregnancy or trying to conceive,” she said.

Around 12 percent of infertility cases result from a woman weighing too little or too much. But, there is hope. Women who have BMIs that are too high or too low can reverse their infertility by attaining and maintaining a healthy weight.

Use birth control shots? They have extended effects

According to Ruiz, women who take injectable birth control like Depo-Provera could have trouble conceiving. Injectables release a large amount of progesterone (the hormone released during pregnancy) to override a woman’s normal cycle and “trick” her body into thinking it’s pregnant.

“Unlike oral medication, which is a systematic release into the system, injectable birth control is designed to be long-lasting,” Ruiz said. “I would encourage women to stop taking injectable birth control at least six months before trying to conceive, since it takes the body a longer time to flush it from the system.”

Do your lifestyle choices put you at risk?

Smoking is bad in general, but it’s also worse for baby. Up to 13 percent of female infertility is caused by smoking. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine also found both men and women who smoked cigarettes had decreased fertility.

Stopping at your favorite coffee shop to grab a caffeine fix is a daily staple in American life. Ruiz stressed that women need to watch their caffeine intake when trying to conceive a baby. “You should have no more than one cup of caffeine a day when trying to conceive,” she said. “Caffeine increases your heart rate and adrenaline which will impact normal ovulation and hormonal function.”

A surprising culprit to blame for infertility problems are common household chemicals used for cleaning. “Bleach is just terrible,” Ruiz said. “Pesticides are dangerous, too; and chemicals like Round-Up are extremely toxic and bad for your health. Any chemical that could modify your cellular makeup should be avoided.”

Breastfeeding will release pregnancy hormones

Even women who have already had multiple pregnancies can be plagued by detours on the road to their next baby bump. “Breastfeeding mothers will often have trouble becoming pregnant again soon after giving birth, as prolactin and oxytocin – the hormones that stimulate milk letdown – are high. Women who are breastfeeding don’t have normal cycles and it can stop ovulation or cause a woman to not ovulate regularly,” Ruiz said.

Infertility is not an inconvenience, it’s a disease

 There are many diseases of the reproductive system that impair the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus. To improve your chances of getting pregnant, it is essential that these organs are healthy and treated for any underlying conditions.

The Mayo Clinic detailed a few of the most common conditions that contribute to infertility:

  • Ovulation disorders, which hinder or prevent the ovaries from releasing eggs. Examples include hormonal disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that might relate to your ovaries producing too much of the male hormone testosterone. Other underlying causes may include excessive exercise, eating disorders, injury or tumors.
  • Fallopian tube damage or blockage, which usually results from inflammation of the fallopian tube (salpingitis). This can result from pelvic inflammatory disease, usually caused by sexually transmitted infection, endometriosis or adhesions.
  • Endometriosis, which occurs when endometrial tissue implants and grows outside of the uterus — often affecting the function of the ovaries, uterus and fallopian tubes.
  • Primary ovarian insufficiency, also called early menopause, when the ovaries stop working and menstruation ends before age 40. Although the cause is often unknown, certain conditions are associated with early menopause, including immune system diseases, radiation or chemotherapy treatment, and smoking.
  • Pelvic adhesions, bands of scar tissue that bind organs after pelvic infection, appendicitis, or abdominal or pelvic surgery.

What else should you expect when you’re trying to expect? Ruiz said if future parents could pre-conceptionally tackle many of these issues they would already have a better start when trying for a baby.

“It’s imperative couples consult with a health care provider and take measures to treat many of these conditions as early as possible,” she said. “It’s always better to be proactive than reactive when it comes to your health and your baby’s health.”

Lauren Thompson <![CDATA[You Asked: What causes hemorrhoids?]]> 2015-08-20T13:09:33Z 2015-08-20T13:05:20Z “We live in a constipated society.” This isn’t a topic you might broach at the dinner table with family, but unfortunately, someone you know is probably struggling with a symptom this unpleasant truth causes: Hemorrhoids]]>

Adult man sitting on toilet bowl using phone in hands“We live in a constipated society.” This isn’t a topic you might broach at the dinner table with family, but unfortunately, someone you know is probably struggling with a symptom this unpleasant truth causes: Hemorrhoids.

Hemorrhoids are normal anatomic structures made of blood vessels and connective tissue located in the anal canal. When they are working properly, they fill with blood and help a person maintain continence control–the ability to exercise voluntary control over the urge to use the bathroom.

“Hemorrhoids act as the ‘weather stripping’ that seals the gap the sphincter muscle doesn’t close,” said J. Scott Thomas, M.D., a colorectal surgeon, associate professor of surgery and program director of the general surgery residency at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Temple.

According to Thomas, hemorrhoids are actually completely normal. “It’s when they become enlarged, inflamed and symptomatic that most problems arise. Engorgement of the blood vessels may cause irritation and as they become bigger and protrude, they bring discomfort, bleeding and hygiene issues.”

Symptoms of hemorrhoids may include:

  • Painless or painful bleeding during bowel movements
  • Itching or irritation in your anal region
  • Swelling around your anus
  • A lump near your anus, which may be sensitive or painful
  • Feeling of poor hygiene or leakage of fecal matter

Swollen hemorrhoids are often the result of applying too much pressure or excessive straining on the rectum and lower pelvic area. This can happen when you’re straining to have a bowel movement, sitting for long periods of time on the toilet, or experiencing chronic diarrhea. Hemorrhoids can also become enlarged during pregnancy.

We all probably know a person who seems to take forever in the bathroom. Many people read newspapers and magazines, or even take their cell phones with them while doing their business. While this might not seem like a big deal, it can be harmful. If you sit on the toilet too long, your anus relaxes and allows the veins around it to fill with blood. This causes unwanted pressure and increased swelling around the pelvic region.

Who is most at risk for hemorrhoid problems? Thomas said half of his patients are over 50, but that doesn’t mean young healthy people are exempt. In fact, if you’re a weightlifter you may experience hemorrhoid troubles. “Weightlifters are especially prone to swollen hemorrhoids if not using a proper technique,” Thomas said. “Bending down, heavy squatting and other lifts that put pressure on the pelvis/anus could contribute to problems in the future.”

According to Thomas, the largest factor that causes symptomatic hemorrhoids is lifestyle and diet. “The typical Westernized high-fat, low fiber diet of processed foods combined with a sedentary lifestyle certainly doesn’t help prevent them,” he said. “Busy schedules don’t always allow you to answer the call of nature, and because of this, we live in a constipated society.”

Thomas emphasized some of the best ways to prevent hemorrhoids are to eat a balanced diet and ensure your fiber and water intake are adequate. Exercise is also key. “Exercise stimulates bowel function and is important to maintaining normal bowel habits,” he said.

Hemorrhoids symptoms are awkward and undesirable, but that doesn’t mean you should write them off as insignificant. “Hemorrhoids are very common, but I would caution people to see a physician if they’re having any complaint regarding bleeding or other perianal symptoms. About 90 percent of the time it’s going to be hemorrhoids, but symptoms associated with the condition can be a possible sign of bigger problems. We definitely don’t want people to walk away without being evaluated appropriately,” Thomas said.

Madison Matous <![CDATA[Is your dentist finding more than just cavities?]]> 2015-08-20T13:08:00Z 2015-08-20T13:00:47Z A quick glance in the mouth and your dentist can spot a plethora of bad habits, like opening bobby pins with your teeth or chewing ice. But did you know they can also see more serious health issues that may be lurking elsewhere in the body]]>

A glass full of dental tools.A quick glance in the mouth and your dentist can spot a plethora of bad habits, like opening bobby pins with your teeth or chewing ice. But did you know they can also see more serious health issues that may be lurking elsewhere in the body? William Wathen, D.M.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, gives an inside perspective of what your dentist sees during a regular checkup.

Cardiovascular/Cerebrovascular Disease

To understand how oral health is linked to cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular disease we must look first at how plaque affects the gums in the mouth.

Plaque is a sticky deposit on the teeth where bacteria proliferate. When plaque is not removed by regular brushing or flossing, the bacterial byproducts begin to irritate at the gums, producing an ulcer in the gums. This hole in the gum allows the germs to enter the blood stream.

“This irritation triggers an inflammatory response, which sends powerful chemicals that rush to repair the damage done by the plaque,” Wathen said. “However, these chemicals may damage tissues they are not meant to, like artery linings, which can be a factor in heart attack or stroke.”


The same type of inflammatory response that happens in the mouth when gums are irritated has also been linked to dementia, Wathen noted.

When inflamed gums are left untreated, it can turn into periodontal disease, a serious form of gum disease that can cause tooth loss. Worth noting, patients with tooth loss seem to be at a higher risk for developing dementia.

“The more teeth patients have lost means that they have been battling chronic inflammatory disease for quite some time, which can affect other organs in the body,” Wathen said. “In the brain, chronic inflammation can damage nerve cells and cause a buildup of proteins both of which are linked to dementia.”

It’s important to note that gum disease does not cause dementia, but it is a contributing factor.


Bad breath, or halitosis, is the most common symptom of hidden issues found elsewhere in the body, but did you know that the same can be said for fruity breath? Fruity breath is a common symptom of ketoacidosis, a condition particularly associated with Type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the metabolic process – controlled by the pancreas – is not working correctly. When the body doesn’t have enough insulin, it instead uses fatty acids for energy, which produces acidic ketones (byproducts of fat metabolism). When ketones build up in the blood, they make it more acidic. In extreme cases, ketoacidosis can lead to diabetic coma or even death.

Eating Disorders

The two most common eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa -both leave distinct markers on the teeth.

Anorexia nervosa, along with vitamin deficiency in general, can cause lesions on the mouth and tongue and also cause the corners of the mouth to crack.

Bulimia nervosa, and in particular purging bulimia  – or self-induced vomiting – can cause the stomach acid to erode the enamel on the backs of the teeth. As the enamel weakens, the tops of the teeth can also become worn down, especially if patients also grind their teeth or eat a course diet.

Oral Cancer

Each year, there are 30,000 new cases of oral cancer diagnosed in the United States. While oral cancer is curable if found early, the signs can be hard to spot on your own. Luckily, dentists are trained to look for these telling signs making regular check-ups all the more important.

The most common symptoms are a red or white lump or a sore that does not go away after two weeks. Other symptoms include: thickening in the oral soft tissues, soreness or a feeling that something is caught in the throat, difficulty chewing or swallowing, difficulty moving the jaw or tongue, hoarseness, numbness in the mouth or swelling in the jaw.

“For most people, the dangerous triad is smoking, heavy alcohol use and poor oral hygiene, but anything that causes irritation in the mouth can lead to an increased risk for oral cancer,” Wathen said.


While a pregnancy test is your best bet in determining whether or not you are pregnant, your dentist may notice subtle changes that occur in the mouth that often point to pregnancy.

“In pregnancy, there are some natural hormonal fluctuations that take place and cause the gums to be more fragile,” Wathen said.

Common oral issues expecting mothers tend to see are pregnancy gingivitis (swollen red, bleeding gums) and tumors (swollen gums).  Pregnancy gingivitis can occur due to the gums becoming more susceptible to inflammation and infection. To help prevent this, Wathen said that expecting mothers should be extra vigilant in brushing and flossing, particularly if they notice any irritation. Pregnancy tumors can also arise and are nothing more than an isolated swollen gum, and while they can be uncomfortable, they will usually resolve after the baby is born.

Sinus Infections

There are two oral issues that sinus infections can cause: bad breath and toothaches.

“Sinus drainage can cause bad breath, as it can be hard to keep the sinuses cleaned out. To resolve the issue, patients will generally need to go to an ear, nose and throat specialist to have their sinuses flushed out,” Wathen said.

Toothaches caused by sinus infections aren’t actually toothaches at all. The nerves of the back, upper teeth are very close to the sinus cavity. When there is inflammation caused by a sinus infection, it can push on the nerves of the teeth, which can cause some minor discomfort.

“If the pain is coming from the tooth, the nerves are inflamed and swollen and it throbs and hurts,” Wathen said. “When that’s not the case, we can typically tell the pain is coming from somewhere else.”

It is important to note that oral issues do not create these systemic issues, but they can add to an existing issue or a symptom of a bigger problem that is going on elsewhere in the body.

“Your mouth is the gateway to the rest of your body,” Wathen said. “Oral health is much more than preventing cavities and gum disease, it is an important part of your overall health.”

Jennifer Fuentes <![CDATA[Teen e-cig users more likely to smoke]]> 2015-08-20T13:22:17Z 2015-08-19T18:42:02Z Teenagers are among the fastest growing groups of electronic cigarette consumers in the U.S. They may also be the most vulnerable to the devices’ physical and psychological side effects, according to experts from Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry’s Tobacco Treatment Services]]>

As e-cigarette usage among high school students continues to climb, a recent study from The Journal of the American Medical Association reveals an unsettling trend: that adolescent e-cigarette users are more likely than their non-vaping peers to initiate use of combustible tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars and hookahs. The reason may lie in a common denominator between e-cigarettes and their combustible counterparts: nicotine.

While the study hints that more research is needed to determine if this association is merely casual, it’s important to note that while e-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, the battery-powered devices do deliver nicotine in aerosol form.

“Nicotine’s addictive properties are a risk for any age group, but with adolescents, the stakes are even higher,” says Dr. K. Vendrell Rankin, director of Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry’s Tobacco Treatment Services.

05experts-ecigarette-2For teens, mental health as well as key emotional and cognitive systems are at stake.

“Major cognitive functions and attention performance are still in the process of developing during adolescence,” says Rankin, also a professor and associate chair in public health sciences at TAMBCD. “Nicotine increases the risk of developing psychiatric disorders and lasting cognitive impairment and is associated with disturbances in working memory and attention. Reliance on nicotine to manage negative emotions and situations impairs the development of coping skills.”

In addition to affecting the emotional and cognitive development of teens, nicotine is highly addictive. In fact, the younger a person is when they begin using nicotine, the more likely they are to become addicted and the stronger the addiction may become. According to the American Lung Association, of adults who smoke, 68 percent began smoking at age 18 or younger.

In other words, the younger users are when they try or start using nicotine, the more nicotine receptors they will have and the more they may struggle with nicotine cravings throughout  their lives.

“Everybody has a certain amount of nicotine receptors in the brain,” Rankin says. “When you start smoking, vaping or supplying nicotine to them, they multiply. If you stop smoking or vaping, the receptors don’t go away.”

Nicotine use very quickly escalates into addiction, even when dealing with tobacco-free, odorless “vaping” associated with e-cigarettes. That’s because nicotine in any form triggers the release of neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine, which dramatically impacts a number of body systems. Dopamine floods the brain, and nicotine cravings increase.

This includes spit, or smokeless tobacco, which in the past was promoted as a replacement to smoking. The result: The creation of a large group that began using spit tobacco as a smoking replacement but eventually became dual users.

“We are seeing the same phenomena with the e-cigarette,” says Rankin. To better understand the similar association between e-cigarettes and combustible tobacco product use among teens, Rankin says further research could be replicated on a national level, as the study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association focused on Los Angeles high school students.

E-cigarette companies currently advertise their products to a broad audience that includes 24 million youths, and proposed U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations would not limit e-cigarette marketing. Bold marketing tactics, celebrity endorsements, endless flavor choices and a plethora of online videos instructing users on how to mix their own e-cigarette liquid, or “e-juice,” have only added fuel to the fire. There currently are no federal laws in place to restrict minors from purchasing e-cigarettes.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In April, the FDA released the details of a proposal to extend its tobacco authority to e-cigarettes, including minimum age and identification restrictions intended to prevent sales to minors. A final ruling is slated for summer 2015.

In the meantime, many Texas cities have set their own regulations and ordinances banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Any e-cigarette regulation in Texas will have to occur city by city, Rankin says, since the state doesn’t have comprehensive smoke-free laws.

“I don’t think e-cigarettes are going to drop off,” Rankin says. “It’s the newest — or most popular — kid on the block right now.”