Archive for the ‘Health & Medicine’ Category

2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 1 June 2010 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Wikipedia may be your first choice for trivial information, but would you trust it with your life? Surprisingly, researchers from Pennsylvania have found that the community-built encyclopaedia measures up on both accuracy and depth when compared to a peer-reviewed information service for cancer patients – it’s just not very well written.

Doctors often caution their patients against seeking medical advice online, fearing that the information they find could be inaccurate. After all, anybody can create a website that claims to provide expert knowledge, but how can you be sure they’re telling the truth?

You’d think the problem would be even worse on a website that anyone can edit, but Wikipedia turns out to be just as accurate as the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query (PDQ), which was specifically created to cater to patients needs.

Yaacov Lawrence, an assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University, selected the key facts about ten types of cancer from standard textbooks and ask medical students to compare them against Wikipedia and PDQ. They found that less than 2% of the information of both sites was inaccurate, and the depth of coverage was comparable.

The key difference in the texts was revealed by a readability test, similar to those found in Microsoft Word. Analysing the text of both websites showed that while PDQ was suitable for 14-year-olds and up, cancer articles on Wikipedia are at a university student’s level.

“PDQ’s readability is doubtless due to the site’s professional editing, whereas Wikipedia’s lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing,” said Lawrence. “Overall our results are reassuring: on the one hand Wikipedia appears to be extremely accurate, on the other, the resources invested in the creation and upkeep of the PDQ are clearly justified.”

Of course, just like Wikipedia, this research could be subject to change. Perhaps some knowledgeable science communicators will take it upon themselves to whip up the cancer articles into something a little more readable? Go ahead and hit that “Edit” button…

3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 9 May 2010 at 6:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Who needs facts?

We all know that science can be complicated and confusing, but don’t let that get you down – Fake Science is here to straighten everything out. Did you know that the periodic table is actually based on Scrabble, or that wind power uses giant fans to make wind? Science has never been so simple.

Want to lose weight? Keep it off your plate

Simply leaving serving dishes on the kitchen counter rather than bringing them to the dining table reduces the amount of food you eat, say researchers at Cornell University. They found that this simple dieting strategy reduces the temptation of second helpings, cutting the number of calories people consumed by 20%.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said that the same idea can be used to promote healthier foods over sugary snacks – keeping fruit on display makes you more likely to eat it instead of reaching for a piece of cake in the fridge.

Animal privacy? Not in my backyard

Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal’s right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?”

I’m a staunch defender of civil liberties, but even I think extending the right to privacy to animals is going a bit too far. Of course, great care should be taken to avoid distributing their natural habits or causing them distress, but I really don’t think animals mind us watching them doing what they do.

Green tax would hurt the poorest

A proposed tax on carbon footprints would hit the poorest households hardest, according to study from the University of Leeds. The carbon tax would cost low earners 6% of their annual income, while the richest households would only pay around 2%.

The difference is the result of poorer households spending more on costs such as heating and electricity – 40% of their income, compared to just 8% for high earners.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 April 2010 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Print your own skin

Researchers funded by the US military are working on a way of printing new human skin as a treatment for burn victims. What’s more, they’ve using a regular inkjet printer and cartridges filled with human skill cells:

Grow your own font

Typographer Craig Ward has developed a typeface with a difference – each letter was grown from live cells and moulded into the correct shape.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 24 April 2010 at 4:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Forensic experts are unable to accurately determine the age of bruises on the bodies of crime victims, say researchers at Queen Mary, University of London. A study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, suggests that sentencing of criminal cases involving bruising, such as child abuse or assault, could be based on flawed conclusions.

The researchers evaluated the bruise-judging abilities of 15 forensic experts with the aid of 11 willing volunteers and a suction pump. Each subject used the pump to inflict bruises on themselves, which the researchers photographed daily until they had faded completely. The photos were digitally altered to remove any hints that might aid the experts in estimating their age, such as marks from the suction pump, then randomly presented for them to judge. They were also asked to place a series of photos in chronological order, identifying how the bruise faded over time.

While we’re used to seeing experts on TV pin down the time of a crime to the nearest minute, the reality is somewhat different. The median difference between the expert’s assessment and the true age of a bruise was 26 hours, but some were even further out, with one expert getting it wrong by 454 hours or nearly 19 days.

Fresher bruises were easier to identify, with a 52% success rate for injuries under 12 hours old, but accuracy fell as the bruises faded. There was a slight increase in accuracy for injuries over 6 days old, but this could be due to chance as there were only a few bruises that lasted this long.

The experts fared better at the second task, placing the bruise images in chronological order without too many mistakes. The results seemed to depend on the nature of each bruise rather than the skill of the experts, because some bruises showed clearer changes in size and colouration than others.

Incorrectly judging the age of a bruise could have significant effects on a criminal trial, either by allowing perpetrators to get away with their crime or placing the blame on an innocent suspect. The study authors conclude that forensic experts’ estimates are unreliable at best, which calls into question whether they should be used in court at all.

Pilling, M., Vanezis, P., Perrett, D., & Johnston, A. (2010). Visual assessment of the timing of bruising by forensic experts Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, 17 (3), 143-149 DOI: 10.1016/j.jflm.2009.10.002

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 April 2010 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Not really, I’ve just been ill, but that sounds less dramatic. On with the roundup!

Emailers or e-liars?

It’s more tempting to lie when you’re sending a message via email compared with using pen and paper, say psychologists at DePaul University in Chicago. They asked 48 students to split an imaginary pot of $89 by choosing the amount in the pot they would tell their partner and how much they were willing to share. Some conveyed their choice using email, while the rest wrote it down.

Nearly all of the emailers (92%) lied about the amount of money available, versus just 62% of letter writers. Participants reported they felt more justified in this deception, and also kept more of the money for themselves. Next time you’re doing a financial deal, be sure to get it in writing of the non-digital variety…

Don’t drink and drag

Everyone knows that smoking and drinking is bad for your health, but it seems that doing both at once could be even worse. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, such as two small glass of wine per day, has previously been linked to a reduced risk of stroke, but a 12-year study has found that smoking may counteract this benefit.

The study followed the drinking and smoking habits of 22,524 people in the UK. Moderate drinkers who didn’t smoke were 37% less likely to have a strike than non-drinkers, but the same wasn’t true of smokers.

Less is more when it comes to dating

Speed dating is increasingly popular these days, but it may not be the best way to find “the one”. When meeting a large number of potential partners, the brain may become overwhelmed by choice and end up resorting to surface values, instead of what’s inside.

A study published in Psychological Science found that people at speed dating events with 24 or more dates were more likely to pick a partner based on their weight or height, while those at smaller events took a deeper look, taking in into account attributes such as education and employment.

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6 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 11:53 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Musings

Anyone who knows me will attest to my often unwavering love of science. I pay my rent talking about science; not a day goes by when I’m not entrenched in the latest scientific discoveries. But it has to be said, sometimes science is a twat.

Science is often applauded as a discipline of progress, the great giver of development and improvement to life. And yet science has deprived a forgotten generation, a generation who suffer the indignity of progress and yet reap very few of the benefits.

My great aunt, simply known by everyone as Auntie, is very nearly 89 years old. Born in 1921 she is basically all my grandparents rolled into one. All my natural grandparents were gone by the time I was seven and so she had to bear the brunt of surrogate grandparenthood. And I wasn’t the easiest of surrogate grandchildren. Being a science geek, and being perpetually unpopular, meant that I won several academic awards during my high school years. Whilst these awards were mostly for science, I did win the Year 8 award for French.

However, what has to be said is that these awards ceremonies were as about as enlightening as a Gordon Brown YouTube video. And yet she sat diligently through several mind-numbingly tedious and over-bureaucratic awards ceremonies.

Despite her willingness to suffer such torture, science, the subject that enforced her to endure such an ordeal, hasn’t been kind to her. Scientific progress has meant that she now lives in a world where it is commonplace for people to reach her age. And yet the human body is simply not designed to last that long.

Our younger generation laud science as the bringer of technology. Science gave us the internet, the iPhone and HD TV. Yet she was born between world wars, in a time when such ideas were fanciful. What has science done for her? It has extended her life so that she now has to deal with dementia, her body wearing out under the strain of scientific progress. Last week she sneezed and fractured a vertebra. A woman who served in WW2 as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) now needs four care visitors a day just to help her stay in her home.

If, as she will soon surely need, she has to move into a care home, it will cost around £1000 per week. The travesty is that if she hadn’t worked hard all her life and had no savings then care would be provided. But my point isn’t a political one.

Is the subject that I love causing such problems? On our exponential march into the future are we leaving behind those that don’t reap the benefits? Those of a religious persuasion are sometimes shaken in their convictions by a lack of faith. Just sometimes I wonder whether a world without science would be kinder….

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 10:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine

Students and alcohol are never far apart, but most manage to hold off the booze when they’ve got an important test the next morning. Now it seems they needn’t worry, as researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health have found that combining last-minute revision with a couple of beers isn’t a problem. Heavy drinking the night before an exam had little effect on a student’s academic performance, but they did have worse moods and slower reflexes.

The researchers recruited 196 student for the study, and randomly assigned them to either a strong beer or a non-alcoholic placebo beer. The students spent the evening drinking in a controlled environment before retiring for the night, and then in the morning were subjected to both academic and mental performance tests. One week later they did it all over again, but with the opposite beverage.

Drinking sessions lasted just over an hour, during which male students had to drink an average of around 3 pints of beer, while females were served closer to 2 pints. The particular amounts were tailored to each individuals body weight, with the aim of achieving a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.12%. The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines “binge drinking” as a BAC of 0.08%.

Unsurprisingly, 70% of students assigned to the alcoholic beer complained of a hangover the next morning. This didn’t seem to affect their exam performance however, as regardless of beverage all students scored relatively high on a mock exam and a quiz on a lecture from the previous day. Despite this, students rated their own test performance as worse if they were hungover.

These findings contradict previous research showing links between alcohol consumption and academic problems. The researchers suggest that a third factor such as personality could be the cause of both – perhaps some failing students are driven to drink. They also warn the research shouldn’t be used as an excuse for excessive drinking:

“We do not conclude…that excessive drinking is not a risk factor for academic problems. It is possible that a higher alcohol dose would have affected next-day academic test scores. Moreover, test-taking is only one factor in academic success. Study habits, motivation and class attendance also contribute to academic performance; each of these could be affected by intoxication.”

I’d be inclined to agree with them. Taking exams isn’t fun and neither is being hungover, so why risk the combination? Instead, wait until the test is over, then head to the nearest pub. Just don’t spend the entire evening dissecting the exam questions!

Howland, J., Rohsenow, D., Greece, J., Littlefield, C., Almeida, A., Heeren, T., Winter, M., Bliss, C., Hunt, S., & Hermos, J. (2010). The effects of binge drinking on college students’ next-day academic test-taking performance and mood state Addiction, 105 (4), 655-665 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02880.x

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 January 2010 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

In all the excitement of the new year, I forgot to explain my Just A Theory schedule for 2010. I’ve decided to post twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the usual Weekly Roundup on a Sunday. Of course, there might be the occasional post outside that schedule, but its what I’m aiming for. Remember that you can always subscribe to the RSS feed and get notified each time a post goes up.

Fart FAQ

Everybody does it, even though sometimes we don’t want to admit it, so why not learn some facts about farts with this handy infographic?

Hold your nose and click for a larger image.
Hold your nose and click for a larger image.

Wii tech good enough for physio

A video game accessory designed to help you get fit could also be used to rehabilitate stroke victims, says a physiotherapist. Ross Clark of the University of Melbourne found the accuracy of a Wii balance board compared well to lab-grade “force platforms”, which normally cost more then £11,000.

Both pieces of equipment are designed to measure pressure from a person’s foot. The force platform aids physiotherapists in reteaching a stroke patient how to stand, and Clark found that a balance board could act as a suitable replacement, despite retailing for under £100.

Its not the first report of scientists using Wii controllers as cheap sensors in their work – see this Wired story, complete with a picture of a Wiimote in a lab stand.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 December 2009 at 5:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

I’ll be taking a break from Just A Theory from now until the start of next year. Now that I’m working full time I’m finding it a little harder to keep up with blogging, so I think it’ll be good to have some time off and recharge my batteries. Over Christmas I’ll be thinking about ways to improve the blog for 2010, so let me know if you have any suggestions. Enjoy the rest of 2009!

Drinking advice, straight from the source

With December 25th inching ever closer you’ve probably already been to a number of booze-fuelled Christmas parties, but have you thought about the long-term risks of drinking alcohol?

If you’re anything like me, probably not, but I did read this interview on the University of Oxford science blog with one of their scientists, Naomi Allen. She talks about the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol, and suggests middle-age women who are most at risk of breast cancer should probably hold back on the booze.

It’s good to hear the risks laid out in a clear and non-headline grabbing manner, but the interview is also an interesting example of institutional journalism. This piece could easily appear in a magazine or Sunday supplement, but Oxford have chosen to cut out the middle-man and publish themselves. We’re seeing more and more of this type of work crop up, as the media continues their struggle to reinvent themselves in a Web 2.0 world.


Who says bacteria can’t be beautiful? New Scientist have a gallery of Petri dish art created by microbiologists. My personal favourite, for obvious reasons, is this little guy:

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 16 December 2009 at 9:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

People restricted to watching half their usual amount of television burned more calories in a three-week period, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers at the University of Vermont found that while cutting back on television didn’t affect the amount of food people ate, it did mean they were more active and burnt an average of just under 120 extra calories a day.

America’s rising obesity crisis has lead to many public health initiatives designed to get the nation eating well and exercising. The researchers suggest that smaller changes in behaviour, like watching less television, could actually have more of an effect on weight loss.

There’s certainly a lot to cut back on. The average US adult watches 5 hours of television a day, making it the most time consuming activity behind sleep and work. Watching TV has previously been associated with risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and it burns less calories than other low energy activities such as reading or talking on the phone.

To investigate the effects of cutting back on television, the researchers monitored the viewing habits of 36 adults with a BMI between 25 and 50. Each participant reported watching at least three hours of TV per day.

With a baseline set, 20 participants were random selected to have their viewing hours cut in half. A device attached to the television would switch it off once the week’s viewing limit had been reached, and not allow it to be switched back on until the timer reset a week later. Needless to say, the monitors were securely locked away to deter tampering! The other 16 participants served as a control group, continuing to watch the same amount of television.

The results showed a slight reduction in food intake for the 20 participants who had watched less TV, but this was not statistically significant. They did however significantly increase their energy expenditure, burning an average of 119 extra calories a day.

That might not sound like much, but it adds up. Over the course of a year, burning 119 calories a day would result in a weight loss of over five and a half kilograms. It seems that while watching TV won’t turn your eyes square, it does contribute to making your body round.

Otten, J., Jones, K., Littenberg, B., & Harvey-Berino, J. (2009). Effects of Television Viewing Reduction on Energy Intake and Expenditure in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (22), 2109-2115 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.430

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 4 December 2009 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Of course, that wasn’t the actual headline the papers ran with:

All men watch porn, scientists find – Daily Telegraph
Porn-loving men ruin sex study – The Sun
Pornography study that was doomed to fail after scientists couldn’t find a single man who hadn’t viewed X-rated material – Daily Mail

The story comes from this press release detailing the launch of a new study by the University of Montreal in to the effects of porn on men. Quite why you press release the launch of a study rather than its results I’m not sure, but the papers seem to have latched on to this part:

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

It turns out that Lajeunesse has so far asked 20 male students about their sexual habits, and found that they all watch porn – so I guess that definitely means all men do. From this tiny sample, Lajeunesse also determined that single men watch porn an average three times a week, for 40 minutes at a time.

Lajeunesse’s research actually seems to have a decent aim in mind – finding out whether porn can harm healthy sexuality – but the idea that you can drawn any general conclusions from the habits of 20 men is laughable. I don’t know what the University of Montreal press office were hoping to achieve with their press release, but if it was anything more than “tee hee hee, porn”, they’ve not really succeeded.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 25 November 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today the Daily Mail and the Telegraph both reported that spending time on Sodoku and other puzzles will help you lose weight. That’s right – you can simply think yourself thin, because giving your brain a workout apparantly burns 1.5 calories a minute, or 90 an hour.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Lose weight without even having to really do anything? Fantastic…until you realise that shifting just a single pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories more than you normally do. At five and a half weeks per pound, you’re not going to slipping in to some skinny new clothes any time soon.

Surely this advice comes from a well-respected brain expert though? It seems to have been announced by one Tim Forrester, who is billed as a “researcher” and “mental agility expert” by the newspapers. He also happens to run, a “a brand new internet retailer specialising in Brain Training, Educational and Skills Improvement products.”

Well that’s handy – Forrester can sell you the very same puzzles that his “research” suggests will help you lose weight! And not a conflict of interest in sight.

It’s not clear how Forrester made this incredible discovery, but a bit of Googling shows up an article from Popular Science, published in 2006. The “1.5 calories a minute” figure seems to be ascribed to Harry Chugani of the Children´s Hospital of Michigan, but it’s not clear when or where he said it. The article also says our brain requires 0.1 calories a minute simply to survive, a phrase that Forrester quotes nearly verbatim.

Thinking hard is obviously going to require some extra calories, but I have no idea how many. The figures in these articles don’t seem to be backed up by any research, and they seem fairly unlikely – walking burns around 5 calories a minute, and requires far more activity than simply thinking.

Really, it doesn’t take too many calories to recognise that these articles are nothing more than poorly researched adverts for some guy’s website. That’s bad enough, but they could also have a potentially damaging effect on someone’s health if they decide to reach for the crossword instead of the cross trainer. There are no quick fixes to losing weight, and the “Sudoku diet”, like many, is complete nonsense.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 2:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Large Hadron Collider taken down by bread

Earlier this week the Large Hadron Collider suffered yet another setback, when it was dive-bombed by a bird carrying a piece of baguette. You just can’t make it up.

The rogue bit of bread caused a short circuit in part of the LHC’s above-ground electronics, leading to an automatic shutdown of the giant ring’s cooling system. Thankfully the LHC was only knocked offline for a few days this time, and systems are now running normally. Lets just hope the scientists at Geneva have invested in a couple of scarecrows.

Eating fast makes you fat – now we know why

It’s often said that eating too fast will lead to putting on weight, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to catch up with your full stomach. Now, new research has found a possible physiological explanation for why this might happen.

Dr Alexander Kokkinos of the Laiko General Hospital in Athens found that eating too quickly can slow the release of two hormones from the gut, PYY and GLP-1. Volunteers were given 300ml of ice cream to eat at different rates, and those who ate the slowest had the highest hormone concentration.

X-rays top the charts

Back in June I reported on a Science Museum survey to pick the most influential scientific infection in their collection. The results are in, and it seem X-rays take the top spot, followed by penicillin and the DNA double helix.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, I think. In my original post, I went for the Pilot ACE Computer, because it was the first multi-tasking computer. It seems others disagreed though, because it came in at a lowly seventh place. Still, X-rays over penicillin? I’ve taken antibiotics far more than I’ve been X-rayed, as have most people I would’ve thought. Strange.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 21 October 2009 at 8:00 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine

It has long been known that sleep deprivation affects your ability to remember things long term. Yet until now the exact mechanism causing these misplaced memories has been unclear.

The problem had been that the relationship between sleep deprivation and the brain is multi-faceted; it was hard to see the wood from the cerebral trees. But in a paper published in this week’s Nature, an international team of scientists report findings that suggest the culprit has been revealed.

In their study the researchers took mice that had been deprived of sleep for five hours and examined the hippocampus, the section of the brain known to play a fundamental role in long term memory.

They found that the sleep-deprived rodents had a higher level of an enzyme called PDE4 than those left to sleep normally. In order to make sure that these increased levels of PDE4 were indeed behind the long-term memory loss they tested whether the mice could recall a fear stimulus.

In mice that were treated with a drug that inhibits PDE4 production they found the effect was nullified and the sleepy mice could remember just as well as those rodents that had been well rested. Whereas the mice left with increased levels of PDE4 struggled when tested.

This research might have implications for those suffering with serious sleep deprivation such as new parents. However, further research is necessary to experiment with Rolipram, the drug used in the study, and its effectiveness combating memory problems in humans suffering with sleep deprivation.

Vecsey, C., Baillie, G., Jaganath, D., Havekes, R., Daniels, A., Wimmer, M., Huang, T., Brown, K., Li, X., Descalzi, G., Kim, S., Chen, T., Shang, Y., Zhuo, M., Houslay, M., & Abel, T. (2009). Sleep deprivation impairs cAMP signalling in the hippocampus Nature, 461 (7267), 1122-1125 DOI: 10.1038/nature08488

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 18 October 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Apologies for my lack of posting this week, I’m once again hepped up on Lemsip as I battle against a cold. My fellow bloggers have done a great job at picking up the slack, but I still have a collection of interesting links from the past week. Here we go:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 October 2009 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Autotune the cosmos

Autotune is a piece of software designed to tidy up slightly out of tune singers, but people have discovered it can also be used to turn almost anything in to a song. Results vary, but this Autotuned version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is actually really good:

Ig Nobel 2009

This year’s Ig Nobel awards, which celebrate “improbable research” in science, were announced earlier this week. Amongst the winners were a team who investigated whether it is better to be hit over the head by a full botle of beer or an empty one, and the creators of a bra which can convert in to two protective face masks.

The best seat in the house

Above is Bruce McCandless II, around 100 meters away from the space shuttle Challenger. He’s the furthest out in space that anyone has ever been, and he’s got quite a view.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 2 October 2009 at 5:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Probiotic yoghurt drinks full of “good bacteria” have become a popular choice for those looking to stay healthy, but now EU scientists have dismissed the manufacturers claims. The announcement could result in tighter laws on the benefits food companies are permitted to advertise.

The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) examined and rejected 180 health claims for probiotic ingredients. Ten were dismissed outright, and the other 170 were said to be unproven due to lack of evidence. These claims do not include the two biggest probiotic companies, Actimal and Yakult. They withdrew their claims from the analysis, to be resubmitted at a later date.

EFSA’s review follows an EU law in 2006 which made it a requirement for all medical-sounding marketing claims to be verified scientifically. No products or marketing will have to change straight away, but the European Commission will eventually create new legislation to be voted on by member states.

Chair of the EFSA science panel Albert Flynn stressed the importance of giving consumers accurate information about the products they buy:

“It’s been an issue for some time that general health claims are made about these products using the family name for the active ingredient and not saying which member of the family is in the pot.

“We expect the claims that will come now from the companies will be much more specific.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 1 October 2009 at 5:42 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The last few weeks have seen some interesting developments regarding animal research, catch up on the lastest news with Understanding Animal Research:

Lack of sleep linked to Alzheimer’s

Studies using mice suggest that lack of sleep could increase the development of toxic plaques in the brain, accelerating the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

White blood cells found to set the pace of wound repair

After more than fifty experiments in mice, scientists have mapped out how a set of white blood cells (lymphocytes) set the pace of recovery after serious lung injury.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Gene therapy for colour blindness

A team of scientists have restored colour vision to two colour blind squirrel monkeys using gene therapy.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.


Last week two prominent scientists in America published an article about the need for change in the communication of issues surrounding animal research.

The article, We Must Face The Threats, tackles the difficult topic of animal rights extremists, and the effect they are having on the scientific community.

Animal research is always a difficult topic to discuss. Trying to present a balanced argument can be as difficult as trying to avoid a mine in a field of landmines. However, I believe that in this case, the authors of the paper, Dario Ringach and David Jentsch have managed to keep to the facts, rather than reverting to ‘mud slinging’ and ‘calling names’.

Ringach and Jentsch also describe how the public are often influenced by groups other than scientists when it comes to the topic of science. This is a problem for science across the whole of the field, not exclusively animal research

The article describes how the entertainment industry contributes to the “misperception of science, producing movies that increasingly portray humans and technology as the source of evil”. Only last night I was watching Spaced – the episode where a dog was snatched by an ‘insane’ scientist who was conducting animal research in an illegal lab – hardly how animal testing happens in this country…!

Ringach and Jentsch also voice their frustrations (which I share), at celebrities wearing AIDS or cancer ribbons one day, and then supporting PETA‘s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) fundraising events, or featuring in their advertising campaigns the next. Many of you will have heard about the recent scandal with Naomi Campbell, who posed naked in the 90s as part of PETAs I’d Rather go Naked than Wear Fur campaign, but recently became the face of an advertising campaign for a luxury New York furrier, Dennis Basso. Cases like this make me wonder the reasons why celebrities support PETA – are they fully informed of all of their policies?

However, Ringach and Jentsch do well to steer clear of these questions (better than me anyway), and do not waste their time repeating what others have done before them – pointing out the countless problems with the animal-rights views. Instead, their overall message is that these issues only cause a problem because the message is being presented with little opposing force from the scientific community.

They are therefore calling for the “scientific community to make a concerted effort in condemning animal-rights extremism and in reaching out to the public to explain our work, its importance, and out commitment to the strictest ethical guidelines of animal research”.

They also emphasize the need to “acknowledge an increasing divide on how animal experimentation is perceived by the broad public.” They believe that “we should open a discourse on the topic, explaining the key role animal research plays in our work and what our society stands to lose if we were to stop it.”

To all those scientists who are sceptical of openness about their role in animal research, it should be pointed out that Ringach and Jentsch, along with their families, have suffered at the hands of extremists, therefore their conclusions come from first hand experience.

They are also out there, putting these ideas into practice. Ringach and Jentsch are members of a US organisiaion called Speaking of Research. Speaking of Research can be compared to the UK’s Pro-test, indeed Tom Holder spokesperson for Pro-test, has been in the US for the past few years getting this fledgling organization onto it’s feet. Drawing on the success in the UK, where animal rights extremism has decreased over recent years, the group aims to support and campaign on behalf of scientists against the extremists.

I believe that this paper not only makes solid points in regards to animal research, but also to the scientific community at large. Yes there are some who are already trying to stem the tide of pseudo-scinece (Ben Goldacre’s column and Sense about Science are just two examples), but they are just a drop in the ocean, and it is the scientists who must take action together, whatever their field of research. As Ringach and Jentsch conclude:

“We must prove that ‘scientific community’ means something more than the mere fact that we publish in the same journals and attend the same conferences. We must stand together to defend those colleagues under attack and defend the research we believe to be ethical and critical for our understanding of the brain in health and disease. The public is ready to listen.”

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7 Comments » Posted on Monday 21 September 2009 at 8:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Can this man cure cancer with his bare hands?” ask the Daily Mail. Well, no. But you probably guessed that already.

The man in question is Adrian Pengelly, a self-styled healer, energy worker, teacher, and psychic. Apparently he’s recently had a bit of bother from the BBC consumer programme Watchdog – presumably because people think he is lying to them and stealing their money.

Pengelly claims to have “magic hands” that can cure cancer. The lack of an apparent mechanism proof for his restorative powers doesn’t bother Pengelly; his power is in the “thousands of people saying they were healed” after his “treatment”. “I don’t care about scientific evidence,” he says. Until later in the article, that is:

“Some said I had a gift from God. But I just wanted to understand the science.

“I thought: “What is there? There’s only energy – electricity in different forms – and it floats.” I can feel energy come with one hand and draw it with another.

“Somehow the energy I was generating was stimulating the body’s immune system.”

That’s funny. Isn’t floaty electricity what “causes” the health problems of those poor electro-hypersensitive people? If only there was some way for us to tell what effect electricity has on the human body, some sort of method that could be applied scientifically. Nah, it’ll never work.

You can tell I’m in a pretty snarky mood this evening. But what else can you say about a man who claims to be able to heal from a distance, without knowing who he is healing?

“It may seem hard to believe that a healer can effect an improvement when he is hundreds or thousands of miles away from a patient, but time and time again the results have been seen to work…

“Adrian does not need to know the name, address, or any details of the person who needs healing. It seems to work regardless of this information.”

Wow, so something that has absolutely no effect can still have no effect at a distance! What a marvellous age we live in.

I probably don’t need even need to say it, but it’s clear that Pengelly offers nothing more than a placebo effect for those he treats – and he’s not even very good at it. In the Mail article, he claims to be able to cure 65% of cancer sufferers. I’d expect a little better from magic, especially at £30 a session!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 18 September 2009 at 10:59 am by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Yes folks, it’s that time of week again….here’s the latest from Understanding Animal Research:

How Broccoli protects arteries

C2AFE2FF-BE37-14AC-DF9E04E0F65B3A95Researchers have discovered one reason why broccoli and other green leafy vegetables are definitely good for you. Using mice, they discovered that a chemical found in these green vegetables – sulforaphane – could protect arteries from clogging, so reducing the chance of heart attacks.

Previous research has shown that certain areas of the arteries are more prone to the build up of fatty plaques. The mouse study showed that, in these areas, a protein called Nrf2 is inactive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Stem cell link to prostate cancer

A new study identifies a stem cell that may cause some types of prostate cancer, at least in mice. Called CARNs (castrion-resistant Nkx2.1-expressing cells), they are responsible for creating luminal cells, which secrete chemicals into the prostate.

When they inactivated certain tumour suppressor genes in the CARN cells of mice, the team saw out-of-control growth of the luminal cells, which can lead to the formation of a tumour. The study also found that, surprisingly, the cells did not rely on male sex hormones such as androgens to thrive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 9 September 2009 at 3:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

What happens to fat left over from a liposuction procedure? Brad Pitt might choose to turn it in to soap, but scientists at Stanford University have figured out a surprising alternative: stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are highly sought after because of their ability to transform in to many other types of cells within the human body. Finding a reliable source for these stem cells has provided difficult but Michael Longaker, one of the paper’s authors, believes fat could be the perfect solution.

Longaker calls liposuction leftovers “liquid gold“, because certain cells within the fat can be readily converted to usable stem cells. What’s more, it can be done much quicker and easier than current methods. Most stem cells are derived from skin tissue, but this can take at least 4 weeks until the stem cells are ready for use. There is also a risk of cross-species contamination, because “feeder cells” taken from mice must often be used to help the human cells grow.

The new method, detailed online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, can start producing stem cells on the same day as the fat is extraced. What’s more, it doesn’t require the use of feeder cells to get going.

Liposuction is most often used as a form of cosmetic surgery, but this development could see us all undergoing a minor form of the treatment. Removing small amounts of fat from a patient’s own body would allow for the creation of stem cells used in their treatment. For example, a person with heart disease could have fat extracted and turned into heart cells, allowing doctors to test out drugs without putting the patient at risk.

Sun, N., Panetta, N., Gupta, D., Wilson, K., Lee, A., Jia, F., Hu, S., Cherry, A., Robbins, R., Longaker, M., & Wu, J. (2009). Feeder-free derivation of induced pluripotent stem cells from adult human adipose stem cells Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908450106

Comments Off Posted on Monday 7 September 2009 at 5:33 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The dissertation-ing indeed continues, bring on Friday is all I can say… but in the meantime i’m still writing for UAR. Highlights this week:

Leishmania parasites feed immune cells

W0041701 Phlebotomine sand flyResearchers using mice have shown how the leishmaniasis parasite, transmitted by sand flies, establishes infection. Leishmaniasis is a disfiguring and potentially fatal parasitic infection that affect some 350 million people worldwide.

Contrary to previous research, they found that it is not the sand flies’ saliva that helps the parasite establish an infection, but a secreted gel called PSG. It is produced by the Leishmania parasite, and forms a plug which blocks the gut. This forces the sand fly to regurgitate to dislodge the plug and feed properly, which simultaneously deposits the parasite and some of the gel into the human body.

To read further, please click here.

Diesel fumes grow new blood vessels?

New findings indicate that the link between diesel exhaust fumes and cancer lies in the ability of particles within the exhaust fumes to cause the growth of new blood vessels, which can aid tumour development.

The team reported a six-fold increase in the formation of new blood vessels in the implanted tissues and aortas of mice exposed to the diesel fumes. In the mice with reduced blood supply, they saw a four-fold increase in new vessels to the hind limbs. The formation of new blood vessels is strongly associated with tumor growth; tumours grow rapidly, consuming large quantities of oxygen and nutrients.

To read further, please click here.

Key protein in obesity related diseases

It is well known that obesity can lead to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and it is thought that this is due to low-grade inflammation.

Scientists believe they may have found the protein which causes this inflammation using mice. The protein, called angiopoietin-like protein 2 (Angptl2), is a fat-derived protein. The team showed that the levels of Angptl2 are raised in the fatty tissue of GM mice, especially in tissue with a low oxygen supply.

To read further, please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 28 August 2009 at 3:48 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Another week and another bunch of research headlines from Understanding Animal Research:

How do you mend a broken heart?

A team of scientists have developed a patch which could help the heart to heal after damage. Heart attacks often cause irreversible damage to the heart muscle, leaving survivors more prone to further attacks or heart failure.

In a recent study, scientists took immature heart cells from newborn rats, and placed them onto a biodegradable ‘scaffold’. They then exposed the patch to chemicals which encouraged the cells to grow, before transplanting it into the abdomens of rats.

To read more about this story please click here.

Monkeys with two mums may eradicate mitochondrial disorders

Scientists have produced four infant monkeys using a technique which could stop women with genetic diseases passing them on to their children. Faulty DNA contained within cell structures called mitochondria was replaced by healthy mitcochondrial DNA (mDNA) from a donor egg, so genetic faults were not passed from mother to baby.

To read more about this story please click here.

Low-carb diets could be more damaging than you’d think

A team studying the effect of diet on the cardiovascular system in mice have shown that a diet low in carbohydrates could lead to artery damage.

Three groups of mice each received a different diet: a standard mouse type, a western diet (high in fat) and a low-carb, high-protein version. After 12 weeks, one sixth more of the mice eating the low-carb diet had developed atherosclerosis compared with the standard diet.

To read more about this story please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 August 2009 at 7:05 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This week’s updates from UAR headquarters:

New target for stopping colon cancer

A team of scientists studying mice have found a target that could lead to an effective way to kill colon cancer cells.

Past treatments for many types of cancer target the epidermal growth factor (EGFR). This belongs to a group of proteins that signal cells to reproduce; if the cells can no-longer reproduce, then the cancer cannot spread.

However, the drugs designed to target the receptor have shown very little effect against colon cancer,so the search is on for new targets. The new study identified the ERBB3 receptor (a close relation to EGFR) as a candidate.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

‘Magnetic’ stem cells target damaged blood vessels

Scientists have harnessed the power of magnetism to guide stem cells towards damaged tissue in rats. The team coated stem cells with iron nanoparticles.

This allowed them to be moved by an external magnet around the body, to the site of injury. It also allowed their path to be tracked using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners.

They used endothelial progenitor stem cells, which circulate in the blood and are involved in the healing of blood vessels. They become endothelial cells, the cells that line the blood vessels.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 17 August 2009 at 3:29 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This weeks updates from UAR headquarters:

Buzz surrounds cancer treatment

A group of scientists has harnessed the power of bee venom and used it to kill tumour cells in mice. By arming small particles dubbed nanobees with the bee venom melittin, they successfully delivered the toxin directly to tumours.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

How infection can lead to psychiatric problems

Scientists using mice have discovered how early exposure to a common type of bacterium can lead to psychiatric disorders. PANDAS (Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infection not the furry black and white kind!) causes problems such as obsessive-compulsive behaviour, ticks and Tourette syndrome.

In this study researchers showed how a specific strain of streptococcus bacteria – GABHS – can cause PANDAS symptoms in mice.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Delaying motor neuron disease

By blocking the production of a faulty protein in mice, researchers have delayed the onset of motor neurone disease, improved mobility, and extended life-span. Motor neurone diseases affect the cells that control movement.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 12 August 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Are a generation of children growing up with text messaging at risk of turning their brains to mush? The Daily Mail seems to think so.

“Predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally, a study has found.”

The study in question was recently published by the journal Bioelectromagnetics, and did indeed look at mobile phone use and cognitive function in children. What Michael Abramson and colleagues did not find, however, was a causal link, despite what the Mail might think. Remember folks, correlation does not imply causation.

Researchers tested the mental abilities of 317 Australian 12 and 13-year-olds, and recorded their mobile phone usage. Results show children who had more calls and text messages were less accurate in memory tests, but completed them faster. The paper goes on to suggest that text messaging could be responsible, as predictive text “train[s] the user to favour speed over accuracy.” A quote from Abramson in the Mail article backs this up:

“We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive text, is behind this.

“Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially they could impact down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal.

“The use of mobile phones is changing the way children learn and pushing them to become more impulsive in the way they behave.”

In a word: bollocks. The data gathered simply does not back this up. It may be completely true, but it’s not a statement that can be drawn from the evidence available in his paper. Makes a nice sound bite, though.

This line of argument is further undermined because the same correlation was seen with phone calls, not just texts, implying the underlying mechanism might be the same. Perhaps children who use their phones more often are just naturally more easily distracted, thus pay less attention? There is no way to tell from this study.

That doesn’t stop Baroness Susan “Facebook makes you fat” Greenfield weighing in, with her usual attacks on anything invented in the past couple of decades. In addition to suggesting “Generation Text” will cause the downfall of humanity, she has a go at Twitter:

When I was a child, if I wanted to tell someone about my day, I spoke to them face-to-face, I wrote them a letter or I walked to the phone box down the road.

Communication was far from instant and, although we were not aware of it at the time, it influenced what information we deemed worthwhile sharing.

Today, we can ‘tweet’ to the universe such inanities as: ‘I’ve just put my socks on.’ A friend can respond – ‘Congratulations!’ – within seconds.

A Twitter search for “I’ve just put my socks on” does admittedly turn up a single result, but this is just one of the thousands of message sent every day. Despite this common criticism of banality, I don’t think most people actually use Twitter in this way. No one cares what you had for breakfast, so tweeting about it probably results in a quick exodus of followers. Of course, I have no evidence to confirm this other than my own anecdotal experience, but at least I admit as much!

I agree with Greenfield that new technologies must be evaluated for potential harm. Where we differ is my requirement for causal links and solid evidence, rather than conclusions pulled out of thin air.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 August 2009 at 4:13 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Glaucoma reversed in rats and humans

Researchers have reversed the symptoms of glaucoma in rats using medicated eye drops. Further tests on a small number of human patients also showed promising results. Glaucoma is caused by increased intraocular pressure (pressure inside the eye). This gradually causes damage to the optic nerve, which eventually leads to blindness. Researchers used rats suffering from glaucoma to test eye drops containing nerve growth factor (NGF).

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Rodent teeth grown from stem cells

mice toothMice have grown new teeth from stem cells implanted into the jawbone. Stem cell technology has been used before to produce tissues, but in a limited way. This is the first time a study has shown that a few cells can go on to produce a fully functioning organ. The team began by removing the upper molars from five-week-old mice. They developed a seed-like bioengineered tooth tissue containing stem cells and the genetic instructions necessary to form a tooth, and transplanted the tissue into the jawbones of mice. The implanted cells developed into fully formed teeth with an identical structure to normal teeth.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Heart stimulated to heal itself

Scientists have shown for the first time that it is possible to stimulate the heart to heal itself without the use of stem cell technology. Heart muscle cells are undifferentiated in a fetus, so are able to multiply and grow to create new heart muscle tissue. However, as the fetus develops, these cells become differentiated and, it was previously thought, no longer produce new tissue. This has consequences in adults when damage occurs to the muscle, for example in heart attacks and in congenital heart defects.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 August 2009 at 6:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

A week on the Guardian’s Technology desk means I haven’t been keeping up with all the science news as much as I normally would. Don’t worry though, I’ve still got some good stuff in this week’s roundup.

Run Forrest.exe, Run!

Toyota have created a robot that can run. Not an easy task, as the machine must keep its balance whilst moving at fast speed, but the result looks promising:

Will we eventually have millions of these little guys running about the place, I wonder?

LaTeX tech

Bit of a geeky one this. LaTeX is a language used by scientists and other people to create documents containing lots of equations. I’ve used it in the past, and whilst it produces nice results, it can be tricky to use because of all the commands you have to learn. Remembering the codes for mathematical symbols can be especially difficult. Detexify allows you to draw the symbol you want with your mouse, and it will give you the code. Even if you have no use for LaTeX, it’s fun to have a play and watch the symbol recognition in action. Try drawing a smiley face!

Kill or cure?

Kill or cure? is a website that seeks to “make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” Where else can you learn that ketchup prevents cancer, but toothpaste causes it?

Kids vs climate change, round 2

A while back Sam wrote a post laying out the environmental reasons not to have children. It inspired quite a debate between some commenters, and now his position has been backed up by new research. Statisticians at Oregon State University found that in the US, having one less child will have an almost 20 times larger impact on the environment than things like changing the car you drive, or recycling.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:50 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Researchers have used mice to pinpoint what goes wrong in aneuploidy. Aneuploidy describes genetic disorders affecting chromosomes, usually resulting in an extra chromosome. Such disorders include Down syndrome and Edwards syndrome, and often cause pregnancy loss.

The researchers were looking at mutations of a particular gene in mice, to determine its role in colon cancer development. However, during the study they noticed that the mice carrying one copy of a mutation in the Bub1 gene had fewer offspring.

Further studies found that this effect was confined to female mice. If a mother’s egg had a mutation in one of the copies of Bub1 then she was more likely to have fewer offspring that survived until birth. They also found that the mutation was more harmful the older the mice were, which is the same for aneuploidy in humans.

Bub-1 works as a checkpoint in cell division, controlling the spindles which pull the chromosomes apart during cell division. It is likely that the mutation disrupts this process, resulting in extra chromosomes in the egg cells. Further tests will study the mutation in more detail to see if this is the case, and whether the mutation is present in humans.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:45 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Using mice, scientists have pinpointed the molecule which is responsible for making allergic reactions more severe.

The team studied patients who had experienced anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) during surgery. They found that these patients had very high levels of the hormone IL-33. Further studies using mice showed that this hormone significantly increases inflammation.

Inflammation is triggered during anaphylactic shock. This reaction is often so severe that constricts the airway, leading to breathing difficulties and even death. By blocking the IL-33 hormone in mice the researchers were able to reduce the inflammation to non threatening levels.

The next stage is to study the hormone in more detail to better understand why it causes such severe inflammation. In the future, IL-33 inhibitors could change the way we treat anaphylaxis and could save many lives.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 23 July 2009 at 11:19 am by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

Hong Kong was badly shaken by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) in 2003. 1,755 people were infected in the city, and 299 died.

The effect that Sars had on public attitudes to hygiene was profound. The restaurant business took months to recover as customers opted to stay at home. When they did return they found that restaurants had begun providing designated serving chopsticks, often a different colour to the others, so that people did not contaminate communal dishes with chopsticks that had been in their mouths.

It became common to see signs in lifts proclaiming that they were disinfected every hour. To be on the safe side, many citizens started pressing buttons with their keys.

Thermal imaging was introduced for monitoring incoming passengers at the international airport, one of the world’s busiest. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing surgical masks, even when the world isn’t gripped by a pandemic.

It is this heightened awareness of basic hygiene in the city that doctors are crediting with the remarkable finding that swine flu is spreading in Hong Kong at half the global rate. The secondary attack rate, a measure of the frequency of new cases of a disease among the contacts of known cases, is estimated at around 29 per cent globally (compared with 5-15 per cent for seasonal flu). According to a study by the University of Hong Kong, the secondary attack rate there is just 14 per cent. This despite the fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Hong Kong’s example shows the importance of providing good information on simple measures that can be taken to curb the spread of swine flu. Of course we don’t want to panic anyone unduly. But warning the public of the dangers and informing people about how to minimise their risk of catching flu can make a real difference. Articles like Simon Jenkins’s in the Guardian yesterday are particularly unhelpful. A study published in the BMJ found that believing the outbreak had been exaggerated was associated with a lower likelihood of making the recommended changes in behaviour. Interestingly, people from ethnic minority groups were much more likely to follow advice about how to avoid swine flu.

“Many people might indeed die of flu,” Jenkins writes, “but they might also die of a nuclear attack, an asteroid strike or a dozen other diseases and accidents now receiving lower priority.” Yes, what a scandal it is that resources are being diverted from the NHS Asteroid Strike Service to fight a highly infectious and potentially lethal disease. True, the vast majority of swine flu cases will get better in a few days. But for a virus so infectious, the mortality rate doesn’t have to be high to mean many deaths and an overwhelmed health service. Unqualified columnists should refrain from disputing professional medical advice: misinformation about health can kill.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 11:14 am by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Musings

This week has seen a once in a lifetime event. As the spectacle unfolded those who were lucky enough to witness it were turning to those around them whispering of how, in years to come, they would tell the story that they were here. As this epic event reached its climax the spectators spontaneously rose in religious fervour and burst into rapturous applause.

I am not, however, talking about the Moon gliding across the Sun and entrenching those huddled on the ancient banks of the Ganges into more than 6 minutes of mid-day darkness. Rather I refer to the unforgettable events that unfolded on Monday morning in North West London.

After four days of epic Ashes cricket, England had negotiated themselves into a position to achieve the unthinkable; victory over that most ultimate of enemies, at the home of cricket, for the first time in 75 years. However, a massive stand between two typically resilient Aussie batsmen on Sunday night had given the visitors the faintest sniff of victory and seriously threatened the finger nails of England supporters.

In times of need there was nothing else for it; give Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff the ball. No matter that his knee is as crocked as Gordon Brown’s smile and about as stable as the flagging economies of the world, for this was Freddie’s hour. Retiring at the end of this series due to the knee problems that have plagued him throughout his career, he stood defiant against the Aussie onslaught, determined to lay into them one last time.

Flintoff hurtles in and roughs up the Aussies despite needing injections in his right knee

From the outset of that final morning, he pounded down the hallowed turf of Lord’s, slamming his arthritic knee into the ground and hurling that red cherry at 90mph straight at the Aussie batsmen. During an unforgettable 10 over spell, he broke a bat, hit Clarke on the helmet, and provided us with that most joyous of sights, scattered Aussie stumps. By the end of the game he had achieved his first (and sadly last) 5 wicket haul at Lord’s, becoming only the 6th player in over 125 years to have achieved that feat as well as notching up a hundred runs on the ground.

Now that you have indulged my boyish excitement, for there is nothing I enjoy more than watching the Aussie’s squirm, it’s about time I brought in the science. Despite the sheer defiant grit and determination of a cocky Lancashire lad, he had a little help from a very unlikely source; the intestines of horses.

After years of serving England and Lancashire his right knee might as well belong to an octogenarian. In order to play he has to have constant injections in the joint to reduce the inflammation that bowling so intensely summons. The England medical team inject him with Ostenil, which is effectively a lubricating liquid, made by purifying bacteria that is originally found in horse entrails.

Ostenil is a safer alternative to steroids, which normally pose a risk of more permanent damage to the muscles and ligaments they are trying to protect. Ostenil is basically a form of Hyaluronic Acid, you know that stuff beauty adverts are always trying to palm off on us. However, scientists make this stuff in the lab, based on the original bacteria from horse gut. Results of studies show that Ostenil is just as effective as steroids and pain levels are kept low for two days after the jab; perfect for Freddie to skittle the Aussies and put England into a 1-0 lead in the Ashes.

If England win the series and that little urn returns to English hands, no doubt it will be down to King Freddie, his buggered knee, and those horse gut injections that allow him his final swansong as a Test cricketer.

4 Comments » Posted on Sunday 19 July 2009 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Travelating in slow motion

The moving walkways used in airports actually slow you down, according to scientists in America. Research has found that people reduce their speed when stepping on to a travelator, making the human conveyor belts only marginally faster than walking. This is only true on an empty walkway however, as any congestion will drop your speed to less than a normal walking pace.

Manoj Srinivasan of Princeton University created a mathematical model to investigate the problem. Publishing in the journal Chaos, he found that the conflict between what your eyes see and your legs feel is responsible for the reduction in speed.

Visual cues tell the brain you are travelling faster than your legs are walking, so in order to conserve energy you slow down. This means that using an empty travelator will only save you about 11 seconds for every 100-metre stretch, compared to walking on regular ground.

But as any regular fliers know, airport travelators are rarely empty. Another study by Seth Young of Ohio State University found that delays due to other travellers getting in the way occur so often that you are better off avoiding the walkway all together. “Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” said Young, speaking to New Scientist.

Wii-ly good for you

Active video games like Wii Sports can be a good alternative to moderate exercise for children, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

While not a replacement for more intensive sporting activities, scientists at the University of Oklahoma found they were comparably to a moderate walk. Children aged 10-13 were monitored as they watched television, played the Wii and walked on a treadmill. Both gaming and walking increased the number of calories burned by two to three times. As such, the researchers suggest encouraging kids to play active games instead of more passive ones.

Facebook for scientists

UK researchers have created myExperiment, a social networking site for scientists. Intended to challenge traditional models of academic publishing, it allows scientists to share “Research Objects”.

Rather than just publishing a paper, myExperiment lets users share data, files, and other information required to understand and reuse research. The site also allows the usual social networking interactions, such as messaging and groups.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 July 2009 at 10:23 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Health & Medicine

How can you tell that a cell is a stem cell? It’s really quite difficult. You can only really know by seeing whether they can regenerate tissue after being implanted into another animal. Either that or by showing that a single cell in culture can generate a line of genetically identical cells that then develop into a range of mature cell types.

In practice, scientists tend to infer that a cell is a stem cell if it tests positive for particular protein markers that are thought to be indicative of a specific type of cell. But according to new research, some of these tests are not very reliable.

Endothelial progenitor cells, or EPCs for short, are a type of stem cell that gives rise to the endothelial cells that line the walls of our blood vessels. They originate in the bone marrow and circulate in the bloodstream. Many scientists hope that EPCs can be used in new therapies to repair heart tissue, and they have already been used in clinical trials, but with limited success. A paper published in the journal Blood this week suggested that this could be because the EPCs they used were not EPCs at all.

Marianna Prokopi and colleagues at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at King’s College London discovered that the normal methods used to isolate EPCs in fact produce samples that are contaminated with platelets, a constituent of the blood. This is a problem because the protein markers used to identify EPCs are abundant in platelets. Platelets themselves are pretty difficult to confuse with other types of cell since they’re small and don’t have a nucleus. But it seems that proteins can be transferred from platelets into other cells.

Platelets readily disintegrate into “microparticles”, which get swallowed up by the bone marrow mononuclear cells that researchers are hoping to grow into EPCs. Thus the mononuclear cells acquire proteins from the platelets that make them look like EPCs.

Team leader Dr Manuel Mayr said: “Our results suggest that cells used in some clinical trials may have been masquerading as EPCs, but were actually a different type of cell. We need to develop new ways of purifying EPCs and new markers to identify them that are unique to these cells. This will help us understand the properties of the cells themselves and whether EPCs are actually able to contribute to the repair of heart tissue before they are tested in trials on people. Otherwise, we cannot be certain whether potential benefits or side effects are due to stem cells or contaminating platelets.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 3:08 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have produced an artificial hormone that causes rapid weight loss in mice. Previous studies have suggested that single treatments for obesity cannot reduce weight by more than 5-10%. While surgery remains the closest thing we have to a cure, this is very invasive. So many studies are looking at ways of using hormones to reduce weight.

Researchers combined the sequences of two hormones (glucagon and glucagon-like peptide-1) to produce a synthetic molecule that activates multiple receptors. The two hormones are similar in structure, but have different functions. Their potential is the subject of current obesity research after scientists showed they can increase the use of calories by the body.

After just a week on the new hormone, the mice lost a quarter of their weight and their fat mass reduced by over a third. Follow-up tests after a month showed even greater loss – reductions of nearly a third and over two thirds respectively.

The technique of activating multiple receptors in a single treatment could prove to be a more potent treatment, opening up a whole new way of thinking about the way we treat of obesity.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 July 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Over the next few weeks I will be doing some work at the Guardian, mostly on their science blog. Whilst I hope to still have some original Just A Theory content, I’ll also be linking to my posts over there. Here is the first, on yet another study into calorie restriction as a means of holding back the years:

The idea that severely reducing your calorie intake will help you live longer may not be as straightforward as reports last week suggested. Eating a radically restricted diet may weaken the immune system and actually shorten life.

While eating less has been shown to slow the ageing process in a variety of animals, these tests are normally conducted in artificial conditions with little or no exposure to potentially life-shortening diseases. Hence the apparent contradiction.

Research into slowing the ageing process through dieting began as early as 1934 when researchers at Cornell University discovered that rats given a restricted diet could live nearly twice as long as normal. Calorie restriction as a route to longer life has now been confirmed in fruit flies, roundworms, and most recently monkeys, but all of these studies kept the animals in unnaturally clean surroundings.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 3:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Scientists at Newcastle University claim to have created human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time. Professor Karim Nayernia who led the team says their research could be used to study male infertility, but the tabloids drew slightly different conclusions.

Ethical storm flares as British scientists create artificial sperm from human stem cells‘ and ‘Are we on the brink of a society without any need for men?‘ – Daily Mail

The end of men? Scientists create sperm in the lab out of stem cells‘ – The Mirror

Chaps doomed as lab grows sperm‘ – The Sun

I can’t access the paper thus only have the press release to go on, but even without an in-depth look at the science I can safely say that these headlines are a bit alarmist.

Theoretically, these artificial sperm could be used to fertilise an egg and produce a viable embryo, though such a procedure is currently banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Laws do change however, and Professor Nayernia and his team have already used the technique to impregnate mice, though the resulting offspring died soon after birth due to abnormalities.

It’s still a huge leap to go from creating sperm to eliminating men all together. For one thing, surely half of all babies born through this method would be male? Even if this weren’t the case, the researchers were not able to produce viable sperm from female stem cells. It seems that men will need to stick around, if only for their Y chromosome.

Ultimately I think that the furthest this research will go is to generate artificial sperm from the stem cells of men who can’t produce their own. We’re not even close to that yet though, and many media reports mention rival scientists questioning whether the team at Newcastle have even created sperm at all. Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield and Secretary of the British Fertility Society told the Guardian:

“As a sperm biologist of 20 years’ experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells … produced by Professor Nayernia’s group can be accurately called ‘spermatozoa’”

Whilst it is important that we have a debate about the implications of this research and create legislation reflecting the realities of science, I don’t think these headlines can be taken seriously. A dose of common sense will tell you that the majority of couples will choose to conceive in the same way as they have always done, men included, and this new technique will just be another addition to the IVF toolkit.

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 3 July 2009 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

With all the World Conference of Science Journalists fun, there’s obviously been a lot of news this week that I’ve had to ignore. Rather than letting it slip away without comment, I thought I’d once again abuse the Weekly Roundup category for the next few days. A bit longer than my usual Roundup format today, because I’m basically cramming two blog posts in to one:

Electro-hypersensitivity: because when you make up a medical condition, it becomes real

Maybe it’s just because I own more electronic doo-dads than anyone really needs, but when ever I see people complaining that electricity/wifi makes them ill, I get annoyed. The Daily Mail published just such an account, from Sarah Dacre, who suffered from unexplained headaches and digestive problems for seven years.

Her medical problems increased over the years, and it wasn’t until 2006 when she was diagnosed with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) by a “specialist [she] found on the internet” that she was able to over them. She moved to a country house in Kent, and was miraculously cured.

It’s a good thing that, unlike the rest of the country, Kent isn’t bathed in radio waves. And doesn’t have mobile phone masts. Or electricity. Hmm.

There is no scientific evidence to show the existence of EHS. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the phenomenon found that those who claimed to suffer from the condition could not tell if the electromagnetic field they were being subjected to was real or not. I don’t know what caused Sarah Dacre’s medical problems, but this ain’t it.

Vegetarianism as a way of avoiding cancer? I’d rather eat a burger

Vegetarians ‘avoid more cancers’ says the BBC headline. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer looked at cancer rates in over 60,000 Brits, and found that those who were strictly veggie or only ate fish were at a much reduced relative risk of developing cancer.

Ah, cancer and relative risk – we’ve been here before. I’m not going to do a full look at the stats, but let’s take bladder cancer as an example. The research showed that compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a relative risk of 0.47 for developing bladder cancer. In other words, cutting out meat more than halves your chance of developing the disease.

Halves it from what though? As always, I refer you to the excellent Cancer Research UK for some numbers. For every 100,000 people in the UK, each year 16.9 will develop bladder cancer. That means roughly 10,000 people each year over the entire population. If we all stopped eating meat – and only if we all did – around 5,000 a year would avoid the disease.

Maybe I’m just too attached to eating meat, but changing the eating habits of an entire country in order to effect such a small change doesn’t really seem worth it. Though, us all cutting out meat would effect other cancer rates as well, so it’s not just 5,000 who are being spared. Should we change our diet of the back of this study then? Lead author Professor Tim Key doesn’t think so:

“At the moment these findings are not strong enough to ask for particularly large changes in the diets of people following an average balanced diet.”

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking I just ignore all health advice. Some risk factors are worth changing your habits for. Every year, around 35,000 people die as a result of lung cancer. Almost 90% of these are a result of smoking. Saving 31,500 lives a year by banning smoking seems a pretty obvious thing to do.

Smoking is also the major preventable risk factor for bladder cancer, which leads to about 5,000 deaths a year. Yes, roughly half of these could potentially be avoided if we all went veggie, but eradicating smoking seems like a much more effective, less costly and less disruptive way to cut cancer rates.

To look at it another way, you don’t see anyone suggesting we ban cars, which would save around 3,000 lives a year. It’s a fair comparison I think, since given the choice between a life of salads and cars, or sausages and trains, I know which I’d go for!

Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 11:45 pm by Seth Bell
In Happenings, Health & Medicine

Last week I had a cold. It was one of those ones you get after you haven’t slept properly for a few nights (and in my case, because I’d been pushing myself to work hard for once).  I felt terrible, but being British, a man, and generally lazy I made no effort to go to the doctor. And, of course, I had no Lemsips, Beechams or any kind of medicine at all in my flat.

Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because my Chinese flatmate Will gave me some medicine. When he first offered me some I half expected a herbal remedy. But no, he produced a packet of tablets which consisted of two types: white tablets for the day time and black tablets for the night time.

I’m the kind of person who always reads the label on medicines. Not because I understand the technical jargon you find on them, I just find it reassuring to pretend I’m capable of deciding what the tablets might do to me. In this case though my knowledge of the Chinese language (i.e. none) prevented me from undergoing this ritual.

As a result I was apprehensive about taking the tablets. Which I found worrying in itself, because I completely trust my flatmate and know he wouldn’t give me anything dangerous. So why was I afraid, and what was I even afraid of? What’s more, I was more apprehensive about taking the black tablets than the white tablets. I thinks it’s probably because I’ve never taken (or even seen) a black tablet before.

In the end I just took both the tablets anyway, after realising that a) I was being irrational, and b) I felt so crappy that I was prepared to try anything. But because I couldn’t read the ingredients I wasn’t really convinced they would work, and instead thought ‘at the very least the placebo effect might kick in and make me feel better.’

When I told Colin this story we both got a bit unsure of whether the placebo effect can take place if you’ve already considered that the thing you are taking might work as a placebo. I’ve had a similar thought before about headache tablets. If I have a headache and take two headache tablets I always start to feel better about 20 minutes later (the only exception being when I’m hung-over).  But, I always ponder, is this simply because I assume they will work, stop worrying about my headache and get on with things. Or is it because the paracetemol, caffeine and so on in headache tablets actually works on me. I imagine it’s mainly the latter, but live in fear that if I ever lose my confidence in headache tablets that they will no longer work on me.

In the case of the Chinese flu tablets, I did feel better the next day. It might be because of the stuff in them, or it might be because of some placebo effect. Or it might be that I had a good nights sleep for once. But I still decided to not take any more, and left it up to time and nature to get me better.

So what is the point of this rambling parable? Well, I feel like I learned a few things. First, being able to read labels makes me feel much happier about taking medicine. Second, black tablets are slightly intimidating. Third,I don’t care if its a placebo effect thats getting me better as long as I feel better. Finally, I should buy medicine before I get sick.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:39 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Blocking the action of a gene called Sirtuin-1 reduced the symptoms of type 2 diabetes in rats, scientists have found.

People with Type 2 diabetes suffer from high blood glucose concentrations due to insulin resistance and increased glucose production. To create a similar condition in rats, the researchers put a group of rats on a four-week diet of high-fat, fructose-rich meals.

Sirtuin-1 is a gene responsible for regulating glucose production in the liver. The researchers therefore then blocked Sirtuin-1 in the ‘diabetic’ rats by injecting them with a fragment of genetic information. This fragment – called an antisense oligonucleotide – interrupts and blocks gene expression and can be targeted to specific genes.

After Sirtuin-1 inhibition, the rats were more sensitive and responsive to insulin. The rate of glucose production fell back to normal levels, resulting in a decrease in the blood plasma. Thus the scientists believe the Sirtuin-1 gene is a cause of type 2 diabetes symptoms.

The results of this study are consistent with a recent mouse study which showed that decreased expression of Sirtuin-1 led to better insulin sensitivity. The next step is to develop inhibitors targeted to Sirtuin-1 in the liver, these will be tested in rats before moving on to primates and human clinical trials if successful.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:18 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Using fish, scientists have discovered a signalling pathway that could be used to treat skin cancers (melanomas). The pathway, PI3K (phosphoinositide 3-kinase) had a major effect on the progression of cancerous melanomas in zebrafish. Zebrafish are ideal for studying skin cancer as the melanomas are similar to those seen in humans, and the fish themselves are easy to observe because of their light-coloured, almost transparent skin.

Signalling pathways regulate cell division, migration and death. The pathways form a complex network to relay these various commands to cells. But when the signalling molecules mutate, the result is often excess cell division which can lead to cancer.

The team looked at two major pathways called Ras and PI3K. They found fish often developed melanomas which progressed rapidly if molecules in these pathways were mutated. The discovery that PI3K was directly involved indicates that it could be a suitable target for melanoma therapy.

The mutant zebrafish also passed on the mutations to their offspring. In this they were strikingly similar to the human inherited syndrome FAMM (familial atypical mole and melanoma).

This study highlights a potential target for therapy, but also gives scientists new insights into the mechanisms of melanomas, revealing other possible targets. But further research into these models will be needed so scientists can see whether they’re as promising as this initial study indicates.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 June 2009 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Sun in common-sense shocker

Sometimes I worry about being too negative on Just A Theory. With all the examples of media failings I write about, it’s easy to let the good ones slip past unnoticed. As such, I thought I’d congratulate The Sun’s Dr Keith for his recent article on misused medical terms. He informs us that we probably don’t have the flu (it’s a cold), there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown, and most of us are rarely “shocked”, in a medical sense.

New hope for Copenhagen

Later this year thousands of people will descend on Copenhagen to try and come up with a new global agreement on climate change. The United Nations, in conjunction with the International Advertising Association, have launched a campaign to re-brand the conference as Hopenhagen. The idea is to move from “coping” with climate change to a “hope” that action can be taken. A silly bit of marketing? Perhaps. But if it gets people talking, it’s probably a good idea.

Check this out. It’s awesome

“But what is it?” I hear you cry. Created by Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama, the strange substance in this art work is a ferrofluid. These odd liquids combine tiny magnetic particles with water or oil, and a surfactant, which prevents the particles sticking together. Ferrofluids react in the presence of a magnetic field, creating the wonderful structures in the video above.

Whilst they do have their practical uses, like forming a liquid seal in computer hard drives or marking areas of the body in an MRI scan, I think you’ll agree that just looking cool is good enough.

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2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 27 June 2009 at 5:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

It’s quite likely that a number of people reading this went out for a drink last night. After all, it was Friday and that’s what people do. I went to a rather enjoyable end-of-term party, and of course had a few beers. Alcohol consumption is such a normal component of our society that when you’re knocking a few back it’s difficult to remember it can actually be very harmful.

A series of papers published in The Lancet this week brings the message home. The first reports that 3.8%, or roughly one in 25, of all deaths worldwide are caused in some way by alcohol. This is about half the number caused by tobacco. Alcohol also contributes to 5% of years spent with disease or disability. Because of this, the authors recommend that the consumption of alcohol for certain health benefits should not be encouraged, as the harm far outweighs the gain.

These figures hide the details however. Due to gender differences in alcohol consumption, one in 16 men die from alcohol related causes, compared to just one in 90 women. This is changing as the number of women drinking increase.

Although these statistics are worldwide, alcohol consumption is not the same across the globe. The average adult drinks around 12 units per week, but in Europe this nearly doubles to around 23 units per week. The UK Government recommend a maximum of 14 units for women and 21 for men per week.

Whilst consumption may be high for Europe, it is in Russia where alcohol use takes the worst toll. A study of over 48,000 Russian deaths found that alcohol was responsible for more than half in those aged 15 to 54. Perhaps unsurprising, in a nation where some industrial workers drink one bottle of vodka per day.

It’s not just the health costs of alcohol that are high. In a paper calling for action on alcohol, the authors estimate that high- and middle-income countries spend more than 1% of GDP on economic costs related to alcohol. You may remember 1% of global GDP as the figure proposed by the Stern report for tackling climate change.

In the same paper, the authors question why alcohol is not higher on the global health agenda compared to tobacco and illegal drugs, considering the harm it can cause. They blame well-organised alcohol lobbyists for blocking action to curb consumption, saying that this must be combated.

This series makes for difficult reading. As a non-smoker, I celebrated when the UK ban came in and allowed me to go to the pub without smelling like a chimney. Discussions of implementing a minimum cost for alcohol however, as these reports suggest, set me protesting. Perhaps more expensive alcohol would be small price to pay however, considering the health benefits to be gained.

Rehm, J., Mathers, C., Popova, S., Thavorncharoensap, M., Teerawattananon, Y., & Patra, J. (2009). Global burden of disease and injury and economic cost attributable to alcohol use and alcohol-use disorders The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2223-2233 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60746-7

Zaridze, D., Brennan, P., Boreham, J., Boroda, A., Karpov, R., Lazarev, A., Konobeevskaya, I., Igitov, V., Terechova, T., & Boffetta, P. (2009). Alcohol and cause-specific mortality in Russia: a retrospective case–control study of 48 557 adult deaths The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2201-2214 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)61034-5

Casswell, S., & Thamarangsi, T. (2009). Reducing harm from alcohol: call to action The Lancet, 373 (9682), 2247-2257 DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60745-5

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 25 June 2009 at 7:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

A Canadian study published in the journal Obesity has found that overweight people are 17% more likely to live longer than those of normal weight. In response, the Daily Mail instructed their readers to fatten up, but I would advise against it.

The study looked at data from the Canadian National Population Health Survey, which monitors the health of participants every two years. Using over 11,000 patient records, the researchers were able to track changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) and their relationship with mortality.

BMI is a commonly-used statistic for assessing a person’s body weight. It is calculated by a formula incorporating both height and weight. Normal BMI is considered to be between 18.5 and 25, whilst 25 to 30 is overweight. Outside of this range are underweight and obese.

Unsurprisingly being underweight or obese was found to be bad news when it comes to living longer, although for younger participants aged 25-59 being underweight was not a concern. Whilst we might expect these results, the conclusion that being in the overweight category gives you a slight lifespan advantage requires deeper investigation.

The problem could lie with the way BMI is measured. For the average person BMI is a useful indicator of healthy body weight, but because it doesn’t actually measure total body fat it can be problematic. For particularly athletic or muscular people the formula doesn’t work, because muscle weighs more than fat. Thus, those in the overweight category could actually be fit and healthy with large amounts of muscle tissue – exactly the kind of people we would expect to live longer.

The authors of the study caution against inferring causality as the Daily Mail has done. Getting fatter won’t necessarily help you live longer, and as the researchers point out there is a difference between a long life and a healthy one. Being overweight has been clearly linked with heart disease and diabetes amongst other conditions, so anyone following the Mail’s advice would be putting themselves at risk of developing these afflictions.

There is also the problem of continuous weight gain. Once you start putting it on, it can be hard to stop. The Healthy Survey data shows that a quarter of Canadians who were overweight in 1994/5 had become obese by 2002/3, and obesity will certainly up your chances of an early death.

Even the Mail must realise this, but I guess the sub-editor who wrote the headline didn’t read to the bottom of the article. They report the words of Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum: “This study shouldn’t be used as an excuse to put on weight.”

Orpana, H., Berthelot, J., Kaplan, M., Feeny, D., McFarland, B., & Ross, N. (2009). BMI and Mortality: Results From a National Longitudinal Study of Canadian Adults Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2009.191

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Training to be a doctor is difficult, and not just for the medical students. For prospective physicians to have real life experience they must examine real patients, but this can be awkward for more intimate procedures such as breast exams.

Up until now the solution has been for students to practice on lifeless prosthetics, but a new initiative by the University of Florida, along with three other universities, uses a combination of prosthetics and computer technology to better simulate the experience.

A mannequin allows students to conduct the physical exam, whilst a computer representation of the patient, named Amanda Jones, responds on the screen above. This “mixed reality human” lets medical students converse with their virtual patient whilst conducting an exam.

A mixed reality breast exam in progress.
A mixed reality breast exam in progress.

Students can talk to Amanda in realtime thanks to computer speech and voice recognition software. This allows them to discover her medical history and respond to questions or concerns during the exam.

Feedback is also provided by sensors within the prosthetic breast that send data to the computer simulation, providing a colour representation of the pressure students are applying.

Different situations can be programmed in to the system, such as whether a breast abnormality is present or not, and dialogue lines can also be changed to prevent an unscripted experience. Benjamin Lok, an assistant professor of computer and information sciences and engineering at the University of Florida, says this communication practice is key.

“Studies have shown that communication skills are actually a better predictor of outcome than medical skills,” Lok said. With the virtual patient, “all of a sudden, students have to not only practice their technique, but they also have to work on their empathy.”

Although the mixed reality system is not intended to replace real exams, it does help students get more experience when volunteers are scarce. Thanks to the success of the breast exam system, researchers are now looking in to simulation other intimate procedures. Lok and team are now building a virtual prostrate exam for students to practice on.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 20 June 2009 at 11:53 am by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

sleeping beautyScientists using mice have developed a new way to deliver gene therapies. By using hollow particles to deliver a gene into cells, they successfully reversed haemophilia symptoms.

Gene therapy can be used to treat diseases caused by a mutated or missing gene. The technique involves delivering a correct copy of the gene. However, current methods haven’t worked too well in patients;often the gene binds at the wrong place in the DNA or doesn’t integrate itself into the cell. The new technique using very small nanoparticles to deliver the genes aimed to overcome these problems. The team also used a genetic element known as Sleeping Beauty to help integrate the genes into the cells’ DNA.

Haemophilia is a blood disorder caused by a lack of a protein called Factor VIII (FVIII). FVIII helps blood clot after injury; so lack of the protein means blood cannot clot effectively. The team loaded the nanoparticles with the gene that produces the FVIII protein (along with the Sleeping Beauty element), and covered the particle with chemicals to seek out and selectively bind to specialised liver cells. They then injected the particles into mice and monitored the effect on blood clotting time and levels of the FVIII protein.

At five and 50 weeks the clotting times of the treated mice were about the same as in normal mice, and much longer than in the untreated group. At 50 weeks the levels of Factor VIII in the blood of mice given the nanoparticles were also the same as in normal mice.

Using nanoparticles with the Sleeping Beauty genetic element seems to work well, and could represent a viable way to deliver gene therapies for various diseases.

More information is available on the Understanding Animal Research website.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 June 2009 at 3:07 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Researchers have created a GM mouse that develops Parkinson’s disease. This mouse will allow them to study progression of the disease and test new treatments without extensive use of monkeys.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a mutation on chromosome 12. There are a number of different mutations known to cause the disease, however the team looked at just one – LRRK2. Because the genes responsible for causing Parkinson’s are very long, traditional genetic techniques are unsuitable. So the researchers used a technique called BAC (bacterial artificial chromosome) which uses sections of bacterial DNA to introduce the gene into the mouse DNA.

The mice produced using this technique showed all the signs of Parkinson’s seen in humans. This includes slowed movement and brain cell degeneration. At 10-12 months the transgenic mice were largely immobile with severe defects in their muscle function. However, treatment with levodopa (used to treat Parkinson’s in humans) reversed these defects.

This suggests that LRRK2 is being expressed in the mice in the same way as in humans, so the mice offer the first model of Parkinson’s disease based on a known genetic mutation, replicating features of the human disease.

This is interesting research showing just how important our ability to genetically modify organisms can be. The method of using BAC was actually nicked from the Human Genome project where it was used to determine the sequencing of genes – this is the first time it has been used in this context.

If further tests show the model to be as useful as this study suggests, it could lead to significant improvements in our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. Scientists will then be able to think of more tailor made treatments for patients.

More information is available on the Understanding Animal Research website.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 17 June 2009 at 10:39 am by Jessica Bland
In Health & Medicine, Musings, Psychology

New Scientist this week reported the findings of an Australian study, which shows that the figure most men find attractive corresponds to the average UK size 14.

Looking at outline sketches of  different female torsos,  a 100 students from New South Wales were asked which they were most attracted to. Their preference for the fuller figure surprised researchers. Previous research  showed  that a 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio is most attractive irrespective of the woman’s size.

This is brilliant. I can eat as many ice creams as I like this summer, and I will only become more rather than less attractive. My stomach flab will start to roll; my thighs will wobble in places where they don’t normally have any jelly. But, apparently, none of that will matter to the boys.

Or will it. Put that body in skinny jeans and white t-shirt and it might not have scored so highly. Put it in a leopard print bikini, a tight short skirt or a strapless dress and it would probably do even worse.

Fashion is not, on the whole, created for the fuller figure. Whilst the naked silhouette of a size 14 might be more attractive, the same body but dressed often suffers from unflattering and uncomfortable lines.

So I can only roll my eyes when The Daily Mail report on this study is accompanied by pictures of curvier celebrities. There is a giant leap between what is most attractive in line drawing and what looks better in skin tight leather.

And mankind, or at least one of them, is inclined to agree. I find myself making the same point as Tom Sykes – Daily Mail journalist and resident irritant. Instead of arguing about why we don’t see size fourteen on the catwalk, he goes for the Playboy angle. Size fourteen girls aren’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the Playboy centrefold because that’s what sells.

I don’t really agree with that: couldn’t the fantasy be constructed by the magazines rather than the other way round? Isn’t a young boy who buys Playboy being influenced by those images of glamour more than the images are pandering to his tastes?

Perhaps. But that’s not the point here.

What is interesting is that both Tom and myself  looked to ways to belittle the research. Before someone showed me his comments, I had already written that it was “a 100 students from New South Wales” that were surveyed and that only line drawings were used. He went a little further:

What it actually shows is that the 100 male students surveyed at the University of New South Wales are pathetic wimps, desperate for a quiet life and terrified of offending anyone.

But the sentiment is the same. The research’s results didn’t fit with the way we see things. And so we tried to find holes in it.

I can’t imagine Ronaldo making me his next trophy. But his and Paris Hilton’s romp in LA last week was no surprise. That’s how the world works. At least, that’s how the world I live in works.  And it’s a little painful to realise that even I am willing to dismiss science if it doesn’t fit.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 June 2009 at 12:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

It’s common knowledge that drinking lots of milk will give you healthy teeth and bones, but for once this piece of health advice actually has a scientific basis. Calcium, abundant in milk, is very important in building up bone strength, particularly in young adults whose bones are not fully developed. A study published in the July/August issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior suggests that, in the US at least, young people just aren’t getting enough.

Using data from another study designed to examine what teens eat and why, researchers at the University of Minnesota analysed the calcium intake of 1,500 young adults, 45% of which were male. The study initially quizzed participants with an average age of 16, with a follow up around five years later.

They found that the majority of teens actually reduced their calcium intake as they grew up. Age 16, more than 72% of girls and 55% of boys had calcium intakes lower than the recommended level of 1.3 grams per day. Later in life these figures fall slightly, but so does the recommended level of calcium. In young adulthood, 68% of girls and 53% of boys fail to get 1 gram per day.

The study suggests that children who are given milk at mealtimes and are encouraged to have positive attitudes towards health and nutrition are more likely to have a higher calcium intake later in life. Time spent watching television was associated with a lower intake however, as was lactose intolerance – unsurprisingly.

Dr. Nicole I. Larson of the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota and colleagues suggest that encouraging more families to serve milk at mealtimes will combat the fall in calcium intake. As always, it boils down to simple health advice: drink more milk.

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 2:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Place your hand over your heart. Now move it to your stomach. How about your thyroid? Ok, that last one is a little trickier, but I’d be shocked to meet anyone who couldn’t do the first two. Well, it’s time to be shocked.

A study published in the journal BMC Family Practice has found an appalling lack of public knowledge of human anatomy. The research, carried out by psychologists at King’s College London, aimed to discovery whether public understanding of anatomy had improved since a similar study in the 70s. It hasn’t.

Clue: It isn't D.
Clue: It isn't D.

They gave over 700 people multiple choice questions like the example above. Most were patients currently undergoing treatment for one of six types of conditions; the researchers were interested to see whether a patient with respiratory problems would be able to identify the location of the lungs, for example. The rest of the sample (133 participants) were members of the public.

In the test above, 44% of the public failed to find the true location of the heart. For cardiac patients the results were even worse, with just over half seemingly unaware of the placement of their troublesome organ.

As the researchers rightly point out, this knowledge gap poses a significant problem for doctors trying to inform patients about their illness. They point to previous studies which show that many people do not know the difference between pairs of medical terms, like heart attack and myocardial infarction, or fracture and broken bone.

I’m not too worried about that kind of knowledge – I couldn’t tell you the difference between those terms, because I’m not a doctor. What I simply can’t fathom is how it is possible for anyone to not know where their heart is. We feel it beat every second of every day. After heavy exercise, the intensity of our heartbeat is so loud that you can hear it. Other organs fair even worse: 72.9% could not correctly place the lungs. What do these people think is going on in their body?

We can take comfort reading that, as you might expect, the study found levels of knowledge increased amongst more educated participants. There was also a slight decrease in knowledge for older participants, suggesting that education is slowly improving. Perhaps public understanding of anatomy is getting better then, but this research shows that a lot more work needs to be done.

John Weinma, Gibran Yusuf, Robert Berks, Sam Rayner, & Keith Petrie (2009). How accurate is patients’ anatomical knowledge: a cross-sectional, questionnaire study of six patient groups and a general public sample. BMC Family Practice, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-43

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 June 2009 at 5:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

New department for science

With all the political turmoil of the past week it may have slipped you by that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) is no more. As part of Gordon Brown’s reshuffle, it will merge with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to become the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS).

What this means for science is unclear, though the government pledge that DBIS will “continue to invest in the UK’s world class science base and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science.” Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation in DIUS and now DBIS, stated that “The science ring-fence is safe and sound and the innovation agenda will further benefit from this move.”

Tetley: not everyone’s cup of tea

Tea makers Tetley have been banned from broadcasting an advert for green tea after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against misleading health claims.

The advert shows a woman about to go for a run before discovering it is raining. Instead, she makes a cup of tea, with a voice-over stating “For an easy way to help look after yourself pick up Tetley Green Tea. It’s full of antioxidants.”

Whilst the ASA dismissed four viewer complaints that Tetley were trying to equate green tea with exercise, they did decide the company were trying to claim health benefits beyond mere hydration, and banned the advert.

Whilst it’s nice to see advertisers being taken to task, I do wish the ASA would show some consistency. Why is this not allowed, when Miracle Gro can advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”?

Tomorrow’s World, today

The classic BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World is being reinvented as Bang Goes The Theory, “a new series that looks at how science shapes the world around us.”

Terrible, terrible name aside, I’m cautiously optimistic about this new programme. The presenters all seem to have backgrounds in science and science communication, and there is even on PhD, Dr Yan Wong. The editing of the trailer (linked above) makes it look like they are trying a little too hard to be stylish, but I will reserve judgement until the first episode is broadcast. Unfortunately I can’t tell you when that is, as the BBC continue their aversion to actually telling you when their programmes start – “late July” is the best we’ve got.

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10 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 June 2009 at 4:18 pm by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

This week saw the launch of a new pill called Ateronon which, according to the press release, ‘is expected to revolutionise approaches to heart health’. Ateronon, we are told, ‘is the first formula proven to halt the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, recognized as the key process of atherosclerotic build-up’. The active ingredient is lycopene, a pigment that occurs naturally in tomatoes. Lycopene isn’t very absorbable, but Nestle discovered that it can be made more absorbable by combining it with whey protein to make ‘lactolycopene’.

The new pill has been developed under license from Nestle by Cambridge Theranostics Ltd. The promotional material talks a lot about the legendary Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Because it’s made entirely from naturally occurring ingredients, it’s being treated as a food supplement and not a drug, meaning much less rigorous testing. Ateronon will be available over the counter from next month.

Does it work? Presumably they’ve published some research showing that it does. I put ‘ateronon’ into PubMed.

Your search for ateronon retrieved no results. However, a search for ‘afternoon’ retrieved the following [5500] items.

I decided to leave trawling through those results to find out whether the afternoon can prevent heart disease for another day. I tried ‘lactolycopene’ instead. Two results, one of which was relevant: a 2002 paper, looking at 33 people, which found that you get a similar amount of lycopene from the lactolycopene supplement as you get from tomato paste.

Evidence that lactolycopene could prevent heart attacks and strokes remained elusive, so I tried getting hold of Cambridge Theranostics. I didn’t get an answer, so I tried their PR company, and someone helpfully sent me some documents. One was an ‘expert report’ by Prof Alf A. Lindberg, dated 2006. It describes a pilot phase I study of 18 people with angina. After two months of taking lactolycopene, lipoprotein oxidation (a biochemical process linked with atherosclerosis) was blocked in all 18 patients. Seventeen of them showed clinical improvements, as measured by a questionnaire.

Another document they sent me described two studies by Dovgalevsky and Petyaev which involved giving lactolycopene to coronary heart disease patients. One had 12 subjects, the other 10. In both studies, lipoprotein oxidation was blocked in patients given lactolycopene. The patients also experienced ‘improvements in the clinical status as assessed by a validated clinical questionnaire’.

So the evidence for Ateronon’s efficacy is three small studies in which taking lactolycopene led to reduced lipoprotein oxidation and clinical improvements measured by a questionnaire. None of the studies tested more than 18 people. None of the studies tested healthy people. None of the studies tested whether lactolycopene can prevent heart attacks, strokes, or any actual disease. None of the studies has been published in a peer-review journal. Perhaps most criminally, none of the studies compared lactolycopene with another drug or a placebo.

Maybe lactolycopene can prevent atherosclerosis. In fact I very much hope it does. But at the moment, the claims being made for Ateronon have not come close to being proven.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 6:42 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Health & Medicine

“Nice jeans.” She pauses and gives the semi nude male on the bus stop poster a proper look. Then she spots the slogan at his feet: “MAYbe you’ve got Chlamydia.” She quickly stop looking and hurries on, hoping all those people waiting for the bus don’t think she has Chlamydia.  

Those behind the MAYbe screening programme this month in West London should be congratulated on a very effective ad campaign. Prompted by high rates of the infection in the capital, the MAYbe campaign hopes to increase awareness and encourage more Londoners to get tested for Chlamydia.

It might seem like Chlamydia is just a public health issue; we know how it works, how to treat it and now we just need to stop it spreading. But this week a group of UK scientists published research showing how these bacteria can still surprise us.

In Sweden in 2006, a new variant of Chlamydia appeared: one that was invisible to the tests used at the time. The new study reveals why this happens.

A single bacterium grew without part of the DNA code normally found in the plasmid – floating DNA, not part of the bacteria’s chromosomes. This bit of code was exactly what Swedish labs used to test whether an infection is Chlamydia or not.

“It turns out that this piece of the DNA is not essential to the Chlamydia. Therefore, an accidental deletion of the DNA won’t kill the bacterium, but it will stop it being identified,” explained Helena Seth-Smith, co-author of the study and researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

She said that they had never seen this kind of mutation before. Most cell mutations occur because of interaction between bacteria. But Chlamydia grows inside human cells. And so, bacteria have little chance to interact with one and other. 

The new type of mutation is a warning for tests on other bacterial infections. If the bacterium of another disease undergoes a similar test, “it’s possible that another chance deletion could make that bacterium invisible.” 

The researchers also identified what they think are the essential parts of the Chlamydia DNA. These make more reliable targets for diagnostic tests because if they mutate the bacterium is unlikely to survive anyway. Seth-Smith is hopeful that future tests will be better designed as a result.

This new research shows just how much we can still learn about diseases we thought we already understood. And it shows how useful these lessons can be for keeping the diseases under control.

Of course, public awareness drives are necessary. And maybe screening campaigns will help London lose its label as the UK’s ‘Chlamydia capital’. But the lesson from this study is that Chlamydia is not just a public health issue. Posters featuring designer jeans still need to be backed up by detailed genetic research.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 25 May 2009 at 2:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

A recent survey suggests that the UK public doesn’t trust scientists to tell them what causes or cures cancer. A YouGov poll of 2,400 people on behalf of the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) found more than half thought scientists constantly changed their minds about cancer. Over a quarter also said that advice was constantly changing, and the best approach was to ignore it.

Is it any wonder that the public feel this way? Since starting Just A Theory I have written about many media reported cures or causes of cancer: oral sex, shampoo, Facebook, cannabis, beer and the Large Hadron Collider. These are just the few stories that I’ve actually picked up on. With so much conflicting media advice, how is anyone meant to make informed decisions? Most of the causes/cures barely change your absolute risk of cancer anyway, so perhaps ignore all advice completely really is the best option.

Not so, say the WCRF. Their advice has stayed the same for over a decade: eat balanced diet, exercise, and maintain a healthy weight. All fairly bog-standard, boring advice, but the WCRF say that around a third of the most common cancers could be avoided by following it. Richard Evans, head of communications for WCRF, explains:

“It is a cause for concern if people are not listening to cancer prevention advice because they have the impression that scientists are always changing their minds.

“The fact is that WCRF and other cancer charities agree on the best ways of reducing cancer risk and this advice has stayed broadly the same for quite a long time.

“A decade ago, we were recommending that people eat a plant-based diet, be physically active and maintain a healthy weight and this is still the case today.”

Yet, the Daily Mail continues its ongoing mission to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into those that cause or cure cancer, and other newspapers do the same. If media advice on cancer is leading people to ignore the WCRF recommendations and thus leaving them more susceptible to cancer, maybe you could argue that actually the media “causes” cancer. Hmm.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 5:20 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Let me begin by saying that sneering at the Daily Mail is not big and it’s not clever. But 2.2 million people read it every day, and it has a lot to say about how they should look after themselves, so it’s only reasonable that its coverage of stories relating to health should be subjected to scrutiny. Here are a few of the questionable articles I found this week.

Monday: Neuroimaging as a crystal ball

I know she looks like a crystal ball reader, but actually Mail hack Wendy Leigh is the one who’s having her fate revealed in this scene. The silly-looking headgear is part of the setup for a procedure called brain electrical activity mapping, or Beam: ‘the latest health trend’ in America.

The theory behind it is that measuring the electrical activity of the brain reveals its ‘true’ age, speed and ability, pointing to the likelihood of certain conditions.

Wendy learns that her acetylcholine levels are high, meaning that she has a low risk of Parkinson’s and dementia. Using imaging technology to predict neurological conditions early is an appealing idea, but are we really able to do this already? I found reliable answers surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, but it doesn’t look like there’s good evidence for quantitative electroencephalography, as it is more properly called, having high predictive value for this kind of use. The article admits as much towards the end:

Dr Richard Henson, of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says while recording brain waves is a well-established technique, it’s unlikely the results could provide meaningful information about what the brain’s neurotransmitters are up to.

Still, Wendy reports that after three weeks, she’s sleeping better and her sugar cravings have lessened, so let’s keep an open mind about it.

Tuesday: Fat = Fit

Overweight heart attack victims should stay fat as they are more likely to live longer, say researchers.

Given the massive health risks associated with being overweight, that’s a pretty dangerous piece of advice. Are there good grounds for it? The story is based on a review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. I couldn’t access the article myself, but according to NHS Choices, the authors actually said that although a paradox exists, the data still support “purposeful weight reduction in the prevention and treatment of CV [cardiovascular] diseases”.

Wednesday: Forget dieting, have a biryani

If you did decide to reject the Mail’s advice and lose weight, how to go about it? I’m not going to have to eat salad for dinner am I? Not according to this article: ‘Why eating a curry could STOP you from putting on weight‘. It seems that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, suppresses the growth of fat tissue. Mice fed on a high fat diet gained less weight if their food was supplemented with curcumin. They still gained weight though. Will takeaway curries become the latest fad diet. Since curries (combined with the associated naan, rice, poppadoms, chutney etc) are quite high in calories, I suspect a salad might still be a better option.

Thursday: Hang on, forget the biryani, go to bed

You wait ages for a more appealing weight loss strategy than eating less and exercising, and two come along at once. This time: ‘Why sleeping more could help you lose weight‘.

Researchers in the US analysed the sleep activity and energy expenditure of 14 volunteer nurses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC.

14? That’s your sample size? And all doing the same job in the same place? Alright then, what did you find?

Those identified as ‘short sleepers’ had an average body mass index (BMI) of 28.3 – classed as overweight – compared with 24.5 – classed as normal – for ‘long sleepers.’

Oh, for crying out loud! Surely we don’t have to go over the whole correlation/causation thing again? Maybe fat people don’t sleep well because they sink into the mattress too much, or because they can’t stop thinking about cake.

Friday: Swigging from plastic bottles will make you strangely self-conscious about your thighs

Drink from plastic bottles can raise the body’s levels of a controversial ‘gender-bending’ chemical by more than two thirds, according to tests.

Experts have been concerned about the possible health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) – an everyday chemical used in many plastic food and drink containers and tins as well as clear baby bottles – which is officially classified as toxic in some countries.

A study found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles showed a 69 per cent increase in their urine of BPA, which mimics the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Gosh, this all sounds very scary. Maybe our increasing tendency to drink from plastic bottles is what caused the whole ‘metrosexual’ thing.

Once again, NHS Choices provides a pretty thorough discussion of the limitations of this study. Most significantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the levels of BPA seen in the participants have any significant effects on physiology.

I promise to write about some good science next week. If I kept doing this, I’d probably tear my hair out.

13 Comments » Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Despite the tobacco industry’s many decades spent telling us that cigarettes are perfectly fine, nowadays everyone understands that smoking is harmful. Research using cells from mice has found an interesting twist however: cigarette smoke may help prevent allergies.

Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands extracted mast cells from mice and treated them with a cigarette smoke-infused solution. Mast cells play a key role in the inflammatory process and the body’s response to allergens.

The cigarette smoke prevented the release of proteins associated with allergic reaction, without interfering with the mast cells’ other functions. The researchers are confident that the same effect would be observed in human cells, but caution against taken up smoking to cure allergies.

Perhaps we’ll actually be seeing more people give up smoking, thanks to another study published in the June issue of Prevention Science. Researchers investigating the effect of smoking bans on employment in bars and restaurants found that so-called “clean indoor air” policies did not harm people’s jobs.

Scientists at Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota looked at eight cities in Minnesota with smoking bans, and two with no such laws. Some of the bans prohibit all workplaces, whilst others exempt bars.

They found that over a 45-month period, there was little change in the levels of employment in bars and restaurants. This puts quite a dent in smoking ban opponents, who often claim that such businesses would be aversely effected by anti-smoking laws. Lead author Elizabeth Klein is assistant professor of health behaviour and health promotion at Ohio State University, and hopes that her study will be of use in future policy decisions:

“In the end we can say there isn’t a significant economic effect by type of clean indoor air policy, which should give us more support for maintaining the most beneficial public health policies,

“The public health benefit clearly comes from a comprehensive policy where all employees are protected from exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.”

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 16 May 2009 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Whilst we are all more focussed on swine flu these days, the threat of avian influenza or “bird flu” is still present. New research from Imperial College and the University of North Carolina suggests we may not have to worry however, because our noses are just too cold.

It sounds strange, but the 32° Celsius of the human nose is not a high enough temperature for avian influenza viruses to survive, according to the study published in PLoS Pathogens. The viruses normally infect the guts of birds, typically a warmer 40° Celsius, so the researchers suspect that our lower temperature protects us. The avian influenza viruses normally enter the human body through the nose, so are unlikely to infect people and cause illness.

There is also the possibility that a human influenza virus could mutate by adapting proteins from an avian influenza virus. The study shows that a virus of this form would also struggle to take hold at 32° Celsius, just like the regular avian influenza virus, so we would be safe unless the virus mutated further.

Thankfully, no one had to catch the flu to conduct this research. Cells from the human airway were grown in the lab and then infected with a selection of human and avian viruses. Whilst the human varieties thrived at both 37° Celsius, our core body temperature, and at 32° Celsius, the avian viruses could only grow well at 37° Celsius.

Professor Wendy Barclay, one of the authors of the study from the Division of Investigative Science at Imperial College said:

“It would be impossible to develop vaccines against all 16 subtypes of avian flu, so we need to prioritise. By studying a range of different viruses in systems like this one we can look for warnings that they are already beginning to make the kinds of genetic changes in nature that mean they could be poised to jump into humans; animal viruses that spread well at low temperatures in these cultures could be more likely to cause the next pandemic than those which are restricted.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 1:40 pm by Emma Stokes
In Health & Medicine

A team at Yale University have used incredibly small plastic particles to smuggle therapies into cells. Their paper, published this week in Nature Materials, has possible implications for the treatment of HIV.

Small interfering RNA (siRNA) molecules have proved effective at stopping the HIV virus from reproducing in animal models. They can inactivate genes in the cells that HIV infects, so the virus is unable to enter these cells and spread. Lead author Kim Woodrow explains how the aim of this study was to produce a way of delivering these particles using nano sized plastic beads that was “safe and effective, and much easier than getting an injection of vaccine”.

To investigate whether the nanotechnology approach would work, they used an siRNA which inactivates the production of a green fluorescent protein. They then packaged the siRNAs into the plastic nanoparticles, and administered them into the vaginas of mice engineered to produce these fluorescent proteins. This gave them an easy way to track how well the delivery system worked, by simply checking the level and location of fluorescence.

The nanoparticles successfully penetrated the cells below the surface of the vaginal wall, spread through the reproductive system, and remained effective for up to 14 days. Crucially, the mice did not show signs of irritation, where as mice given the treatment by a traditional method did.

The results indicate that this method of delivery could be used to produce a topical cream containing the siRNA’s to prevent the HIV virus spreading from the source. However, the team have yet to test this method against an actual virus. Senior author E. Mark Salzman is hopeful though, and is planning ahead. He said “our next step in research will be to test this approach directly in disease models – for example in the HIV model mice.”

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5 Comments » Posted on Thursday 14 May 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

We complain about it all the time. Journalists take a small study with some preliminary findings and write it up as the story of a century. The sensationalising of science news is certainly a problem in the media, but a new study suggests perhaps we are too quick to blame the journos.

A paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine examines the content of 200 randomly selected press releases from 20 academic medical centres in the US. The analysis by lead authors Drs Steven Woloshin and Lisa Schwartz shows that press officers are just as bad when it comes to exaggeration.

The press releases split in to 113 that focused on human research with the remaining 87 covering animal or laboratory research. On the human side, 40% reported on studies limited by factors like small sample sizes. Of the same group, 42% failed to provide caveats explaining the limits of the research.

Things get worse for the animal and laboratory studies press releases. Despite the majority claiming the relevance of the research to human health, 90% failed to mention potential difficulties in extrapolating the results to people.

In total, 29% of releases were rated by the authors as exaggerating the importance of research. Animal research was more likely to be exaggerated than human. It’s not just the press officers grandstanding however. Most press releases contain quotes from the scientists involved, and 26% of these were found to overstate research importance.

The authors admit that their findings would be stronger if backed up by an analysis of the press coverage resulting from these releases, but say the study is still important because press releases are known to be influential. A previous study suggests that as many as one third of news stories rely mostly or completely on a press release.

S. Woloshin, L. M. Schwartz, S. L. Casella, A. T. Kennedy, & R. J. Larson (2009). Press Releases by Academic Medical Centers: Not So Academic? Annals of Internal Medicine, 613-618

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 13 May 2009 at 9:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Men prone to exaggerating their suffering when struck down with a cold often jokingly refer to “man flu” – the implication being that the illness is much more severe than anything their unsympathetic wives and girlfriends might catch. Perhaps men are owed an apology however, as a Canadian study has shown that male immune systems may not be as strong as women’s.

Scientists at McGill University discovered that the female sex hormone oestrogen can stop an enzyme from interfering with the body’s defences against bacteria and viruses. The enzyme Caspase-12 stops the natural inflammatory process which works to fight off infections, so the researchers used mice to find out how it works.

By implanting the human gene for Caspase-12 in to mice they discovered that the males became more prone to infection. The females however retained the natural resistance of mice without the Caspase-12 gene. Lead researcher Dr Maya Saleh and her colleagues concluded that oestrogen in the female mice were responsible for the difference.

“These results demonstrate that women have a more powerful inflammatory response than men,” she said. The team are confident that their research will also apply to humans, because they used a human gene.

They suggest that women could have evolved a better immune system because their health is key to being able to reproduce, a view shared by Dr Lesley Knapp, of the University of Cambridge:

“Women are well known to be able to respond more robustly to infections, and to recover more quickly than men.

“In evolutionary terms it only takes one male to reproduce with lots of females, but females are much more important in terms of producing offspring.”

The research could lead to new immune system aids through genetic manipulation. But then how would men complain when they got the sniffles?

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 5:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail have reported that the Government are indoctrinating children into supporting the MMR vaccine. It seems that in the January 2008 Biology GCSE paper pupils were awarded marks for criticising the controversial Andrew Wakefield paper on the link between MMR and autism.

The paper was set by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) exam board, who have since “apologised for any misunderstanding” and removed the exam from their website despite it being nearly 18 months old. I managed to track down both the paper and it’s accompanying mark scheme with a little Google sleuthing.

Question 5 is the relevant one. Part (a) asks pupils to explain how the MMR vaccine protects children from measles, mumps and rubella, whilst part (b) focuses specifically on Wakefield and his 1998 paper in The Lancet. Pupils must read the following passage and then answer some questions:

Autism is a brain disorder that can result in behavioural problems. In 1998, Dr Andrew Wakefield published a report in a medical journal. Dr Wakefield and his colleagues had carried out tests on 12 autistic children.

Dr Wakefield and his colleagues claimed to have found a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Dr Wakefield wrote that the parents of eight of the twelve children blamed the MMR vaccine for autism. He said that symptoms of autism had started within days of vaccination.

Some newspapers used parts of the report in scare stories about the MMR vaccine. As a result, many parents refused to have their children vaccinated.

Dr Wakefield’s research was being funded through solicitors for the twelve children. The lawyers wanted evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.

The questions are:

(i) Was Dr Wakefield’s report based on reliable scientific evidence? Explain the reasons for your answer.

(ii) Might Dr Wakefield’s report have been biased? Give the reason for your answer.

For question (i) the mark scheme requires an answer of “no”, along with any two of the following: “sample size small / only 12″, “conclusion based on hearsay from parents”, “only 8 parents linked autism to MMR”, and “no control used”. The answer to question (ii) is given as “yes, being paid by parents / lawyers”.

The Daily Mail received the following response from Wakefield:

“The thought police appear to be saying, “To pass this exam you have to adopt this particular point of view.”

“We didn’t make any claims that MMR was the cause of anything. The exam question completely misrepresents what we said. The Lancet study received no funding whatsoever.”

Unfortunately for Wakefield, the lack of a link between MMR and autism is not just a “particular point of view”, but scientific consensus backed up by numerous studies contradicting his original in The Lancet. The exam question gives an accurate (if simplified) account of what happened.

This “controversy” over the exam is actually a complete fabrication by the Daily Mail. Their story tells us the Goverment has been accused of using the exam paper as indoctrination, but fails to mention who’s doing the accusing. It seems quite possible that the story’s author, Beezy Marsh, is also its subject. She is a well known opponent of MMR, as documented by Ben Goldacre.

It’s worth discussing though whether a question like this belongs on a GCSE Biology paper. Should pupils merely demonstrate that they know a bunch of scientific facts, or should they be awarded marks on their ability to understand scientific controversy?

I’d say the latter is an important part of the curriculum, and the Wakefield saga is definitely a suitable topic for the classroom. As a specific exam question however, I’m not so sure. The details behind the incident require an explanation more complicated than the few dotted lines provided by AQA allow.

It’s also incredibly cowardly of AQA to remove the paper from their website the moment “controversy” rears its head, which is why I’ve upload it to Just A Theory (scroll up for the link) for anyone to read. They’ve clearly thought about the response to the question though. An AQA report on the exam paper, which remains on their site for now at least, evaluates pupils answers.

In part (b) many candidates did not seem to appreciate the difference between bias and reliable evidence, often transposing the answers to (b)(i) and (b)(ii). In part (b)(i) many candidates offered ‘small sample’ and many others ‘reliance on parents’ opinion’, but only 10 % identified both ideas. In part (b)(ii) it was surprising that only half of the candidates recognised that payment by solicitors could lead to bias.

The fact that only half of the thousands of students taking the paper thought money changing hands might influence Wakefield’s decision shows that this is definitely a topic that should be covered in the curriculum. I’m just not sure that this particular exam question is appropriate. As for the Daily Mail’s accusation of “brainwashing”, perhaps a GCSE English retake is in order.

5 Comments » Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009 at 12:44 pm by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

Quite understandably, Jacob loves to rant on these pages about the bullshit scientific formula stories that reduce complex processes into a nice-looking arrangement of a few variables, contributing precisely nothing to the sum of human knowledge. But when it comes to the regulation of body weight, the equation is both incontrovertibly true and cruelly simple:

Weight gain = Energy intake – Energy expenditure

If you want to lose weight then, it’s a simple matter of eating less and doing more exercise. Meanwhile, the alarming rise in obesity levels in developed countries in recent decades can be put down to some combination of eating more and doing less. For those concerned with halting the upward trend, the question of which side of the equation to focus on has been a matter of debate.

To address this issue, scientists at the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University in Australia studied 1,399 adults and 963 children to find out the rate at which they burn calories in daily life. From this, they worked out how many calories an adult needs to eat to maintain a stable weight and how much a child needs to eat to follow a normal growth curve. Based on these numbers and data on food consumption in the United States since the 1970s, they calculated how much weight they would expect the average American to have gained in this time if energy expenditure had remained unchanged.

In children, the expected weight gain exactly matched the actual figures, suggesting that diet alone could account for the rise in childhood obesity. In adults, the expected weight gain was 10.8kg, compared with the actual figure of 8.6kg. It seems then, that increased food consumption could account for the rise in obesity in the adult population as well, and in fact an increase in energy expenditure might be offsetting the average American’s overeating to make for a less substantial weight gain.

The centre’s director, Professor Boyd Swinburn, presented their findings at the European Congress on Obesity in Amsterdam yesterday. He said that the results would be similar in other developed countries. ‘To return to the average weights of the 1970s, we would need to reverse the increased food intake of about 350 calories a day for children (about one can of fizzy drink and a small portion of French fries) and 500 calories a day for adults (about one large hamburger),’ he said. ‘Alternatively, we could achieve similar results by increasing physical activity by about 150 minutes a day of extra walking for children and 110 minutes for adults, but realistically, although a combination of both is needed, the focus would have to be on reducing calorie intake.’

I think the use of simple maths like this to figure out something important is great. Now we must think about how to make people eat less, which we know is tricky because we’ve been trying to do that for a while. Food labelling, as Jacob discusses in the previous post, certainly has a role to play. Education is important too, but clearly there are no quick fixes to the obesity epidemic.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 9 May 2009 at 12:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

How should you decide what to eat in order to stay healthy? You could listen to your supposed “angel and devil“, but a more sensible approach is to look at nutritional labels on food packaging. Two recent and independent reports reveal that the “traffic light” system for food labelling is the best approach from consumers. The food industry is resistant to this system however, so government regulation could be required.

The traffic light system
The traffic light system

UK readers will be familiar with these types of labels from supermarkets like Sainsburys. Each segment gives numerical information about the food’s nutritional value, but you can get a very quick idea of how healthy a product is by just glancing at the colours. Green represents low values of fat, sugar and so on, whilst amber and red are medium and high values respectively. Everyone has an intrinsic understanding of what these colours mean, so this easy to use labelling scheme is the Food Standards Agency (FSA) preference.

A study conducted in Australia supports the FSA position. Bridget Kelly, a nutritionist at the Cancer Council, New South Wales in Australia, and colleagues examined four different labelling schemes. She found that those participants shown the traffic light labels were five times more likely to identify healthier foods compared to percentage daily intake labels.

The Guideline Daily Amounts sysem.
The Guideline Daily Amounts system.

These labels are known as Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) in the UK. The system was developed by food manufacturers and retailers, and is used by supermarkets such as Tesco.

GDA represents a food’s nutritional information as a percentage of a typical adult’s guideline daily amount. It makes for more accurate comparisons than the traffic light system, but can be harder to use. It is the preferred industry method because it avoids an overload of red traffic lights – a complete turn-off for any health-conscious shopper.

“The food industry tends to favour the percentage daily intake method (known as Guideline Daily Amount in some countries), but our research indicates that the traffic light system is the most effective and that a consistent labelling approach across all food products is needed. This is unlikely to be achieved without government regulation,” said Kelly

An independent report for the FSA this week published similar findings. The research was carried out by the British Market Research Bureau in association with the Food, Consumer Behaviour and Health Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

They agreed that consistent labelling would be of most benefit to consumers, and that combining the high, medium and low traffic light colours with the GDA percentages would create the best system. The research also found that all of these schemes are valued by shoppers in helping them eat healthily.

The importance of proper labelling is highlighted by another recent story. Food perceived as healthy thanks to clever marketing are sometimes quite the opposite. A report last month from Which? on the nutritional value of breakfast cereals illustrates this, with the finding that “brands thought of as healthy, such as Kellogg’s All Bran, Bran Flakes and Special K contained high levels of salt and sugar.” The Which? report also criticised the use of GDAs over traffic lights.

It seems that support for a single labelling scheme is growing then. Andrew Wadge, the FSA Chief Scientist, said yesterday he was pleased that pressure was mounting on the parts of the food industry not providing this important labelling information.

He also promised to use this research to advise Health Minister on the way forward. They’ll probably be pretty grateful – Department of Health figures indicate that if our eating habits continue as they are, 90% of the adult UK population will be obese by 2050. It’s time for the traffic lights to change.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 8:52 pm by Emma Stokes
In Health & Medicine

How many times have you heard don’t judge a book by it’s cover? Recently we’ve witnessed the judgement of Susan Boyle on the way she looked on Britain’s Got Talent. Lucky for her it turned out that she had an amazing voice, and everyone quickly apologised, or pretended they didn’t judge in the first place.

But, lets be honest, as humans we build up an opinion of people pretty quickly after meeting them, and a lot of this initial impression has to do with how they look. Of course these impressions change over time, but never the less they’re always formed in the first few minutes of meeting or seeing someone.

Take Connie Culp for example, this week there have been numerous articles about her, as she has become the first US woman to have an almost-total face transplant.  After being shot at point blank range by her husband in 2004, she was left without the middle section of her face. She was lucky to survive in the first place, and has been unable to eat or breathe without a tube in her wind pipe.

She has been afraid to leave the house for four years, as she has been scared of people’s reactions to her.  The clinic’s psychiatrist, described an incident in the street where Ms Culp had overheard the child telling its mother: “You said there were no real monsters, mommy, and there’s one right there.”

In the past face transplants have been criticised for being carried out for more cosmetic reasons than life-saving ones.  The issue of psychological problems has also been raised, in that people could find it difficult to adjust to someone else’s face. However, in Connie’s case, it’s difficult to argue that any psychological problems she could have due to her looks would not have been improved after the surgery.  Then there’s the fact that the transplant will allow her to eat and breathe normally, without the use of a tube in her throat, which will significantly improve her quality of life.

Of course the surgery wasn’t easy, since the shooting she has had six major reconstructions, with a total of thirty operations prior to the face transplant itself.  Her journey is far from over either, as it is thought she will require a further two to three operations to remove excess skin and tissue, along with life-long immunosuppressive drugs.  The methods used stem from traditional plastic surgery techniques, along with some pioneering new technology and skilled surgeons. Without people having plastic surgery for purely cosmetic reasons, the field is unlikely to be as developed, or as well funded as it is now.

Face transplants are complex, carry numerous risks, and result in life time reliance on immunosuppressants. But, as much as they are criticised, they are an impressive medical development that has come out of plastic surgery.  And so what if they’re for cosmetic reasons? If the disfigurement is as severe as Connie’s, and seriously affects her quality of life, then surely nobody can argue against them?

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 5 May 2009 at 7:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Yes, But When?

Would you accept an organ from a sheep? The Times reports from Tochigi in Japan that these genetically engineered animals could solve the country’s organ donor shortage.

Currently Yutaka Hanazono and team at the Jichi Medical University has only created sheep with organs suitable for chimpanzees. Stem cells extracted from chimps are grown in a sheep to create fully-formed organs such as a spare pancreas. He believes that within a decade or two the technology could be extended to create human organs as well.

“We have made some very big advances here. There has historically been work on the potential of sheep as producers of human blood, but we are only slowly coming closer to the point where we can harvest sheep for human organs,” Professor Hanazono told The Times.

That will be too long for many Japanese patients seeking donors, as the legal system in Japan has created a deficit in organs. Death is defined at the point when the heart stops, at which point organs will begin to degrade from lack of blood flow. Brain death, where all brain activity has ceased but the heart and lungs can be kept functioning, allows more effective harvesting of organs, but Japan does not allow this.

The result is an extremely low rate of donation in Japan. The US has about 27 organ donors per million people, but in Japan this figure is less than 1 donor per million people. This forces many patients to seek organs abroad, but even this “transplant tourism” will become difficult as international rules on organs become more strict.

The Japanese people have a complicated moral choice ahead of them. Either they must revise their laws defining death, or accept the possibility of growing organs on demand. Both options have serious cultural and ethical implications, not just scientific ones, but something must be done to alleviate the organ shortage.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 3 May 2009 at 5:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Hand-drawn holograms

This video from William Beaty, the self-styled Science Hobbyist, demonstrates a rather interesting concept: hand-drawn holograms.

Holograms are traditionally created using lasers, but these ones use just a compass and some copper. There appears to be some debate about whether they are really holograms, but I think they’re too cool to worry about silly definitions.

How much sugar?

It’s interesting how simply communicating things in a different way can change their meaning. If I tell you that a can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, what does that mean to you? Probably not much. If I show you this picture however, you might think twice before reaching for a Coke:

That's a lot of sugar!
That's a lot of sugar!

You can find this image along with many more at Sugar Stacks, a website dedicated to revealing the “hidden” sugar in drinks and snacks. It’s US focused so there are a lot of things I don’t recognise, but you get the idea. I wouldn’t snack on one sugar cube, let alone the 10 in a single can of Coke, so perhaps I’ll avoid the stuff from now on!

Compulsory bicycle helmets might hurt more

An Australian mathematician has concluded that legally requiring cyclists to wear helmets could actually increase healthcare costs.

Piet de Jong of Macquarie University in Sydney reasoned that requiring helmets leads to a decrease in the number of cyclists, so more people miss out on the health benefits of cycling.

There is a bit of debate around this, with various figures for the increased health costs and reduced number of cyclists being thrown about. To solve the problem, de Jong created a model that could be adjusted for a variety of values.

It was only under extreme circumstances that mandatory helmet laws resulted in a net benefit. Head injuries must make a up a large proportion of cycling accidents, a small number of people must stop cycling due to helmet laws, and the benefits of cycling must be low.

With that in mind, de Jong hopes that this model will lead to more informed policy, but he doesn’t discourage the use of helmets:

“I go to Holland and places like that, and I don’t wear a helmet,” he says. “I used to live in London, and I wore a helmet all the time.”

3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 2 May 2009 at 6:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

This past week, I’ve been struggling to come up with something interesting to say about swine flu. Sam wrote yesterday about The Daily Mail’s approach to the risk posed by the virus, and whilst I agree with him that we shouldn’t dismiss swine flu as a media scare story, I think the issue is a bit more complex.

With the threat of pandemic looming, the important responses come from scientists and politicians. The scientists must act fast to track the virus as it spreads, and work to create a vaccine. The politicians must make decisions regarding border controls and the distribution of healthcare. So far, this seems to be happening.

What about the media and the public? The media have a responsibility to report accurately and to avoid sensationalism. For the most part this has been the case, despite as Sam says, the prominence given to possible death tolls.

That leaves the public. What can you or I do to avoid catching and spreading swine flu? Staying indoors and away from anyone else would work, but the country would grind to a halt. Personal hygiene is important, but if people are too lazy to regularly wash their hands then leaflets telling them to will probably have little effect. And face masks are pointless.

All this means that I’m happy to basically ignore the risk of swine flu. I have little-to-no power to avoid an infection, so fretting about it makes as much sense as worrying about being knocked down by car and killed. The World Health Organisation report 1.2 million deaths every year due to road traffic accidents, but we don’t spend our lives thinking about it.

Swine flu is a problem, and even if the latest news suggests that we’re not headed for pandemic, it is still important that scientists and politicians work to contain it. It’s just not something that you or I should be scared of. And don’t even get me stared on some of the crazy theories out there.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 5:28 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

What was that story about the boy and the wolf? It seems that the Daily Mail, who, over the years, have been more concerted in their efforts to terrify the public than George A. Romero, have got to the point where their own writers are numb to the possibility of genuine danger. This is what Christopher Booker had to say about swine flu:

Too many people seem to have a vested interest in talking up these panics beyond what the evidence can support, from scientists dependent on promoting scares for their funding to politicians who recklessly use scares to show their concern for our welfare. We in the media, it is only fair to add, are far from blameless in this respect.

What a generous concession he makes in that last sentence! If you’re familiar with Christopher Booker’s previous output, you’ll know that he has form when it comes to dismissing danger. Booker wrote dozens of articles claiming that white asbestos is completely safe, even alleging that it is ‘chemically identical to talcum powder’. His vociferous denial of climate change has led George Monbiot to dub him ‘The Wikipedia Professor of Gibberish’. The man’s complete inability to assess risk makes you wonder how he has managed to live to the age of 71 without stepping in front of a bus.

The last occasion when our Government was panicked into sending a health warning to every household in the country, for instance, was in 1987, when Edwina Currie sent out such a pamphlet, Don’t Die Of Ignorance, warning us of the terrifying threat of Aids.

No one can doubt that HIV/Aids has remained a serious problem, to date responsible for some 18,000 deaths in the UK. But back in the late 1980s we were being solemnly warned that, as early as 1990, we could expect the death toll to reach a million.

Compared with the 9,000 people who die in NHS hospitals every year just from MRSA and C.difficile, even those 18,000 deaths in 20 years can now be seen in a rather more sensible perspective.

It’s remarkably easy not to be scared of Aids, isn’t it? It may be extremely deadly, but it’s also extremely easy to prevent. I’m not sure on what grounds the distribution of pamphlets can be characterised as a ‘panicked’ reaction to a deadly infectious disease whose spread can be prevented if people know what simple measures to take. Perhaps the government’s ‘panic’ was instrumental in keeping the death toll in the UK as low as 18,000.

Booker is not the only columnist at the Mail who is snorting at the threat of swine flu. Martin Samuel had this to say:

More people won the Lottery last week than contracted swine flu. And do you know anyone who won the Lottery?

This used to be a country that was healthiest in adversity, almost irritatingly cheerful when the chips were down. Now, some poor soul gets a cough in San Diego and half of Swindon goes to the doctor.

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at St Bart’s hospital in London, warned that swine flu might travel south and mix with bird flu to form — get this — Armageddon flu. The end of the world, in other words: although no doubt it could be averted with an increase in his research grant.

It is time to get a grip. Swine flu, bird flu, Armageddon flu? Yes, and pigs might fly, Professor.

I have a lot of time for Martin Samuel as a sports writer. I used to enjoy his football coverage in the Times a lot – as his many awards testify, he was always able to offer a much more insightful analysis than what you get from the legions of ex-players who stumble into the media upon retirement. But when it comes to epidemiology, I think his analysis is a little wide of the mark. Lotteries, unlike infectious diseases, don’t pick more and more winners every day.

This is not some tabloid fantasy. We are on the brink of a pandemic. That’s not to say that some of the media’s coverage hasn’t been irresponsible. One thing I particularly disagree with is the prominence some papers have given to projected numbers of cases or deaths. Given the degree of uncertainty in such estimates I really don’t think they should be the basis for headlines. But swine flu is undoubtedly a serious cause for concern, and it’s tragic that many people have become so sceptical of the news media that they are happy to dismiss the current situation as a scare story. I can’t help but think how messrs Booker and Samuel might feel if their loved ones become casualties.

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 2:10 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Good news for the appearance-conscious this week, as it is announced that an ‘anti-ageing’ cream produced by Boots, ‘No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’, really does reduce wrinkles. And it is not just Boots who are claiming this, but qualified scientists from The University of Manchester who have given their seal of approval of the product by publishing a double-blind, randomly sampled test of the cream in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The test is essentially a clinical trial: Thirty people were given the product, whilst another thirty people were given the vehicle – the base moisturiser with the suspected anti-ageing agents absent. The participants were not told which product they were using. After six months their wrinkles were examined and compared to their previous degree of wrinkling. At this point it was revealed which product subjects were on and they were given the opportunity to keep using it for a further six months, after which time their wrinkling was examined again. The cream was shown to noticeably reduce wrinkling.

Sceptical? Well I was at first; after all we are all used to the beauty industry relying on “scientific” studies to advertise their products. But this study is published in a reputable journal and does seem to represent a genuine attempt to explore the science behind anti-ageing products. The analysis at least relies on real statistics rather than consumer surveys.

The results show that after six months 43% of people using the product show an improvement compared to 22% of people who were using the vehicle, however the authors of the paper point out that these results are statically insignificant. After twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.  So, strictly speaking, the authors of the study are claiming the benefit of the anti-ageing effects are only noticeable after twelve months (despite this, the BBC, The Sun and The Guardian all report the statistics for the results after six months rather than twelve.)

In 2007 No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum became Boots’ fastest ever selling product after it was shown on BBC2 Horizon, demonstrating that science as a brand can have enormous influence on consumer attitudes.

Does it work then? Well, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced. The results are based on photo comparisons such as the one below. I cannot really observe much improvement, but then I’m not a qualified dermatologist. In addition, the difference between the product and the vehicle may be as a result of an inherent difference to the way a person’s skin reacts to moisturiser.

But despite this I’m genuinely encouraged by this study. The comments section of The Guardian article provides an amusing read: amidst the petty abuse some have complained that this study does not constitute proof, that peer-review is not a foolproof process. I agree with the claim that peer-review is not foolproof, but at least Boots (who provided funding for the study) are making an effort to scientifically investigate their products. Author Professor Chris Griffiths points out that Boots were taking a gamble:

“We did this in a purely independent way. Either way this paper would have been published otherwise we would have not entered into the study. I suppose Boots were confident or foolhardy, whichever way you want to look at it.”

And even though I’m not convinced by the findings, I don’t’ begrudge Boots their increase in sales on the basis of the study. Consumers are more media savvy than they are usually given credit for and will understand that, even if the results are taken at face value, the product has a chance of improving their wrinkles but that there is no guarantee.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll end up trying another product. I think it is more hope than science which will drive people to Boots.

Terms like ‘anti-ageing agents’ do conjure up an image of beauty-treatment advertising jargon, which many of us hold a long-enduring scepticism toward. But a cream which reduces wrinkles is not particularly pie-in-the-sky compared to other achievements of mankind. I’m fortunate enough to be wrinkle-free at the moment, but am hopeful that an anti-ageing cream will be scientifically proved to work in the future. We’re not there yet, but I think this study is a least a step in the right direction.

Watson, R., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L., Bowden, J., Bastrilles, J., Long, S., & Griffiths, C. (2009). A cosmetic ‘anti-ageing’ product improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09216.x

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 April 2009 at 4:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not; researchers in Aberdeen really are looking for volunteers to eat chocolate in the name of science. It’s all to do with flavonoids. We’ve met these antioxidants before in another chocolate story when Italian scientists discovered that 6.7 grams of dark chocolate a day could protect from heart disease.

The team from Aberdeen will be investigating the same effect, and they need forty volunteers to help them out. Anyone stepping up to the challenge must be between 18 and 70, and will be asked to eat either plain chocolate, white chocolate, or a specially prepared high-cocoa dark chocolate. As previous research has shown, its the dark chocolate full of flavonoids that aid against heart disease, so the two other flavours are just there as a control.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health are hoping to discover how flavonoids can help. Interaction with platelets, a type of blood cell that aids in clotting, is thought to be key. We already know that platelets can form dangerous blood clots in heart disease sufferers, and that flavonoids can stop this from happening. What we don’t know is how this mechanism works.

Luisa Ostertag, a researcher on the study, was keen to point out that mountains of chocolate is not the answer to curing heart disease (quite the opposite in fact) but the research could lead to flavonoids being added to more healthy foods:

“Eating a lot of dark chocolate bars is not the answer to protecting against cardiovascular disease because they are high in saturated fat and sugar.

“But perhaps studies like ours could ultimately lead to these special compounds being included in healthier foods or in health supplements.”

So, if you’d like to get your hands on some free chocolate, and don’t mind submitting a few blood and urine samples in the name of science, contact 01224 716693 or email for further details.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 11:37 am by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

These seem to be happening quite a lot, which must be good news. I’ll take you through this one slowly, in case you haven’t been paying much attention to stem cell research.

Once upon a time, there were two types of stem cells. Only embryonic stem cells were able to develop into any type of cell in the body (a trait called pluripotency), but they could only be acquired by destroying human embryos, which some people find distasteful. A more practical problem was that not many people donated embryos, so these pluripotent stem cells were pretty hard to come by. Adult stem cells were easier to obtain, but could only develop into a limited range of mature cell types.

In 2007, the picture changed a little. Scientists found a way of making mature adult cells pluripotent. They took human skin cells and used viruses to introduce four new genes, which successfully returned the cells to a state similar to embryonic stem cells. They called their creation ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, or iPS cells for short.

Pluripotent stem cells derived from adult cells are a very useful prospect, since not only do they get around the problems with getting hold of embryonic stem cells, but they also mean that stem cell treatments could use cells taken from the patient who will receive the transplant, avoiding the risk of rejection. But there were problems with these iPS cells. The introduction of the foreign genes made them very likely to start dividing uncontrolably, producing tumours. Clearly they could not be used in treatments until this issue was resolved.

Two recent Nature papers and one in Science reported the creation of iPS cells by a method that did not use viruses, and allowed the inserted genes to be removed after the cells’ transformation. Another group used ‘excisable viruses’ to achieve the same thing.

Now scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California have described the creation of iPS cells without any genetic manipulation at all. Instead they achieved the transformation simply by introducing a handful of proteins. This latest ‘breakthrough’ was published in the slightly stupidly named journal Cell Stem Cell.

Many more breakthroughs will be needed before iPS can fulfil their extraordinary therapeutic promise. For one thing, we will need to ensure that they are completely safe. This is not guaranteed, even when the cells have been manipulated without using genetic material – no method has produced cells identical to embryonic stem cells. ‘It will be important now to compare the different methods and go with the one that works the best,’ Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute told Nature. Then there’s the matter of coaxing them into becoming the desired cell type for the particular treatment. Researchers will need to produce different cell types from iPS cells and see how they fare in the long run.

All the same, the field of induced pluripotent stem cells is making rapid progress, which can only be encouraging for the future of medical research.

Zhou, H., Wu, S., Joo, J., Zhu, S., Han, D., Lin, T., Trauger, S., Bien, G., Yao, S., & Zhu, Y. (2009). Generation of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Using Recombinant Proteins Cell Stem Cell DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2009.04.005

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 23 April 2009 at 4:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Huffington Post have published an article by actor Jim Carrey on the link between MMR and autism. As we’ve seen before, celebrities taking a stand on science often ends badly, and this case is no exception.

Carrey’s article jumps on a recent ruling against compensation for three families who believe their children’s autism was caused by MMR. He says:

“a ruling against causation in three cases out of more than 5000 hardly proves that other children won’t be adversely affected by the MMR, let alone that all vaccines are safe.”

He continues:

The anecdotal evidence of millions of parents who’ve seen their totally normal kids regress into sickness and mental isolation after a trip to the pediatrician’s office must be seriously considered.

I’m sorry Jim, but there is a well known saying: the plural of anecdote is not data. There are many studies which have failed to find a link between MMR and autism, and the “controversy” over such a link is completely unheard of outside of the UK and US. MMR as a cause of autism is a myth fabricated by the mainstream media, and it has caused measles to rise in the UK by over 2400%. Measles can be fatal, and if this continues, children will die.

Human beings are very bad at assessing cause and effect, and we also feel the need for something or someone to blame when bad things occur. It must be terrible for the parents of autistic children to watch their kids grow distant from them, but the MMR vaccine is not to blame and if the myth persists then other people’s children will be harmed. Jim, you’ve made some great movies, but you’re really badly informed on this issue. Stop campaigning and stick to the films.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 12:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy

This week in Ben Goldacre news

Everyone’s favourite doctor/columnist has put an extra chapter of his book Bad Science online for free. I’m actually a bit behind the times on this one, it was meant to go in last week’s Roundup but I forgot, so you might have already read it. If not, you can grab the PDF here.

The chapter deals with vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath, who was suing Goldacre and The Guardian when the book was first published. Now that they have won the court case the book is being republished with the extra chapter, but Goldacre was kind enough to provide it for everyone else as well. Isn’t he nice? For the next few days you can also see him on the latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. His section starts around 11 minutes in, with a tirade against “the media’s greatest ever science hoax”, the MMR vaccine.

New science journalism course at City University

The Association of British Science Writers has highlighted a new science journalism course starting this September at City University. With tuition fees of £7,495 it’s a lot more expensive than the Imperial course (which covers more than just journalism), and the general feeling on the ABSW members mailing list is it’s perhaps just a re-branding of City’s existing journalism courses with a bit more science thrown in.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

Speaking of Imperial, fellow sci-commer Tim Jones has put his group project online for all to see, and it’s a far cry from my group’s altar piece. Along with Arko Olesk and Graham Paterson, Tim drew inspiration from the exquisite corpse of the surrealist movement to create a picture of science as perceived by the public, the media, and scientists. Go have a look.

Time to feel small

As both Douglas Adams and I have said before, space is big. Really big. So big that I’m only able to include a small part of this excellent illustration in the post:

You ain't seen nothing yet.
You ain't seen nothing yet.

Go here if you want to see the rest, and appreciate just how vast the universe is. Unless that’s just too much for a Sunday afternoon!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 12:53 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have taken pancreatic cells, coated them with Teflon (yeah that stuff that stops your food from sticking to the frying pan) and transplanted them into mice… successfully! Whilst this might seem a bit strange at first, Teflon has been used for many years in medicine for grafts, sutures and surgical implants.

The reasoning behind this is to develop a new therapy for the treatment of type-1 diabetes. Type-1 diabetes occurs due to an autoimmune response that kills cells in the pancreas, leaving the body unable to regulate glucose levels in the blood.

One of the most promising therapies is to transplant pancreas cells into the patients. However, as with all transplants, to ensure the immune system does not destroy the new tissue, the patient must take immunosuppressive drugs. These drugs must be taken long term, and leave the patient susceptible to picking up infections. In a way, this is less desirable than the problem in the first place, and still results in the need for long term medication.

The findings of a team based in California are therefore very exciting. They report in the journal Transplant that they have developed a way of transplanting cells without them being destroyed by the patient’s immune system by coating the cells in a protective layer of polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon).

The team took precursor cells (to pancreatic cells), coated them, and implanted them into mice. They found these cells weren’t destroyed by the immune system and grew into cells that were responsive to glucose levels.  The chief researcher Pamela Itkin-Ansari stated in the press release that “the results exceeded our expectations,” finding “no evidence of an active immune response, suggesting that the cells in the device were invisible to the immune system.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 9:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

This it seems is the week of extraneous body parts. First, from Geneva, a city used to the media spotlight of late, came the news that a pensioner had developed a completely imaginary but yet perfectly working third arm. And then yesterday it was announced that Australian performance artist Stelarc would be giving a talk in Edinburgh about his third ear. An ear it is worth noting that happily resides on his forearm. I can see we are going to need some clarification so let’s start in Switzerland.

Doctors at the Geneva University Hospital have reported in the Annals of Neurology a rare case of Supernumerary Phantom Limb (SPL) syndrome in a 64-year-old stroke patient. A few days after her stroke the pensioner told of how she could not only perceive a third arm, but see it and move it as well. In fact, not only could she move her imaginary appendage but could use it to scratch a very real itch on her cheek.

Curious about the veracity of her claims, neurologist Asaid Khateb put her through an MRI machine and studied the activity of her brain. Remarkably when asked to move her ‘phantom limb’ her motor cortex was activated, suggesting that the brain thought the arm truly existed and was able to be moved. Furthermore, her visual cortex showed signs of activity suggesting she could also see this apparition.

The team in Geneva believe this to be the first case of its kind where a patient can intentionally move a make believe member.

For our second anatomical add-on we must move to Scotland, where yesterday’s Guardian website reported that Stelios Arcadiou, Visiting Professor at Brunel University, would be leading a session at The Edinburgh Science Festival. Arcadiou, better known as Stelarc, is a performance artist with a twist, that twist being an extra ear on his lower arm (see picture below) that was cultivated from stem-cells in 2006. In his talk, entitled Alternate Anatomical Architectures: Fractal Flesh Chimeras & Extra Ears, Stelarc hopes to “explore and extend the concept of the body through human-machine interfaces.” After waiting ten years to find a surgeon willing to construct his aural addition out of human cartilage, he is now trying to hook it up to the internet so that people all over the world can tune into to the delightful acoustic surroundings of his forearm.

Stelarc and his third ear.
Stelarc and his third ear.

In days gone by, people with more body parts than traditionally adorned with by nature would be cruelly toured around the world in so called freak shows, glorified circus acts. It seems to me that a modern day self promoting circus act is just what Prof. Arcadiou may be.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 10:23 am by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s quite easy to think of the Pope as a crackpot old man, like the Duke of Edinburgh. Only the Pope is, by all accounts, a very intelligent man, who is seen as a father figure by over a billion people. You might think, then, that he’d want to consider the facts before offering advice about how to tackle a disease that kills 8,000 people a day. Facts like the fact that correct and consistent use of condoms gives almost complete protection against HIV infection.

‘You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,’  he said last month on a trip to Africa. ‘On the contrary, it increases the problem.’

No one is suggesting that the distribution of condoms, by itself, is going to eradicate Aids overnight, but the suggestion that condoms could make things worse is pretty indefensible. That hasn’t stopped Benedict’s cronies from trying.

On Friday, the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, went on the Today programme. When he was asked about the Pope’s statement that condoms could make things worse, he said ‘I am not sure that’s exactly what he said at all’. All the journalists present must have had a lapse of hearing at the same time, then.

‘What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality. And I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.’ Of course, to a greater extent, he was endangering the lives of millions of African women.

Blogging for the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Gerald Warner offered a slightly more sophisticated defence.

The basis on which the Pope made this claim was the observable and recorded situation in Africa with regard to HIV/Aids infection rates. The statistics speak for themselves. Uganda was hit by an Aids epidemic in the 1980s and the government thought condoms were part of the answer, though it also promoted abstinence and fidelity. By 1992 more than 18 per cent of Ugandan adults tested HIV positive.

But the country has a 41.9 per cent Catholic population so, using this as a base, the Church promoted the “Education for Life” programme, based on abstinence and fidelity while rejecting condoms. By 2007 only 5.4 per cent of Ugandans were HIV positive. No other country has effected such a recovery, though it is threatened now as the government once again turns to the blandishments of the rubber companies.

Uganda’s success in its efforts to tackle Aids is indeed a remarkable story. According to the US Census Bureau/Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDSHIV), prevalence in Uganda peaked in 1991 at 15% of the adult population, and fell to 5% in 2001.

Picking apart what caused this decline is a tricky business. An increase in deaths from Aids during this period might have played a role , but it is likely that the main reason is a decrease in new infections. The reduced incidence has been widely credited to the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) approach taken by Uganda’s first Aids control program, launched in 1987.

Abstinence only programs, by contrast, have repeatedly proven ineffective at reducing sexual activity and sexually-transmitted disease transmission (here’s one review but there are plenty to choose from). Warner goes on:

The correlation between a devoutly Catholic population and containment of Aids is startling and demonstrable. By 2007 Burundi, with a 62 per cent Catholic population, had only a 2 per cent Aids infection rate. Angola, 38 per cent Catholic, had a 2.1 per cent rate. In contrast, Swaziland, only 20 per cent Catholic, had a 26.1 per cent infection rate and Botswana, just 5 per cent Catholic, had a 23.9 per cent rate. Beyond Africa, in the Philippines, 81 per cent Catholic, the HIV rate is a miniscule 0.01 per cent.

Those are some nice figures you’ve chosen there. What about Lesotho? 70% of its population is Catholic, and 28% of its adult population is HIV positive. As for the Philippines, attributing its low HIV rate to the predominance of Catholicism makes about as much sense as crediting its 800 native species of orchid.

The Catholic Church is capable of admitting when it is wrong. In 1992, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, almost 400 years after Galileo’s observations had shown this to be the case. So we can expect the Pope to endorse the use of condoms in around 2400.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 9 April 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today we’ve got another oral story from the Daily Mail, although this one is a little more current. In “Why lipstick could save your life” we learn that “scientists” have discovered that applying lipstick acts as a “stretching exercise” which can improve balance and coordination. The “study” revealed that this could be particularly helpful for women over 65, who are at risk of serious injury or death following a fall.

You’ve probably noticed I’ve got my “scare quotes” out. That’s because the study leader, Dr Patricia Pineau, just happens to be director of research communications for L’Oreal Group. That’d be L’Oreal who, amongst other products, make lipstick. Instantly, my “conflict of interest” alarm is set off.

It could be that this research is completely kosher. The study looked at 100 women aged 65 to 85 who were given shoe insoles to test their centres of gravity and a belt that monitored posture. The conclusion was that the women who wore make-up every day had better balance and posture, and were less likely to suffer a potentially fatal fall.

What we have here is a positive correlation between make-up use and balance. Does that mean that wearing lipstick improves your coordination? Not necessarily. It could be that the women with better coordination are more likely to wear make-up. If you’re old and difficulty maintaining balance, it’s also possible that you find it difficult to put on make-up due to shaky hands. As such, those women with poorer coordination would also wear less make-up.

Now, I’ve got no evidence to support this hypothesis, but it seems equally likely to me as the one put forward by this research. The difference is that I’m not trying to sell you anything, whilst L’Oreal have chosen to go with the hypothesis that just happens to highlight their products. Surprise surprise.

“Research” like this is really only one step above customer satisfaction surveys that “prove” product X is better than product Y. I’ll continue to distrust any study that benefits the company that funded it it – sorry L’Oreal, you’re just not worth it.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Browsing the major news outlets this morning, as I tend to do, my gaze fell across the BBC’s “Most Read” list. “Oral sex linked to throat cancer” proclaimed the headline. Could be a story in this, I thought, until I clicked through and realised the article was from 10th May 2007. Old news.

Stories from years gone by sometimes crop up on the “Most Read” list when they get linked to by big sites, and of course appearing on the list means a story is more likely to get read, self-perpetuating it up the charts. This story about a Sudanese man forced to marry a goat crops up more often than you’d expect.

If it’s old news, why am I bothering to post about it? It’s actually pretty funny. Popping along to the Daily Mail I noticed that they were also running the story, the difference being the date – 8th April 2009.

Reading the article, it’s obvious what has happened. Someone at the paper obviously noticed the story’s popularity on the BBC’s site, and realising that it ticked two key Daily Mail boxes, sex and cancer, simply copied it. Compare the following two paragraphs, first the BBC:

HPV infection was found to be a much stronger risk factor than tobacco or alcohol use, the Johns Hopkins University study of 300 people found.

The New England Journal of Medicine study said the risk was almost nine times higher for people who reported oral sex with more than six partners.

And then the Daily Mail:

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University has revealed that the HPV virus poses a greater risk in contracting cancer than smoking or alcohol.

The American study of 300 people also found that that those with more than six partners were almost nine times at greater risk of contracting the disease.

The Daily Mail reporter has rewritten the wording enough to avoid it being a blatant rip off, without noticing that the story is actually ancient, in news terms. If any further evidence was needed, they even use the BBC’s quote:

Study author Dr Gypsyamber D’Souza told the BBC: ‘It is important for health care providers to know that people without the traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol use can nevertheless be at risk of oropharyngeal cancer.’

If you wanted proof that even the big boys sometimes stoop to copying off each other, you’ve got it. I’m not sure how they even made this mistake to be honest. You can immediatly tell that the BBC story isn’t fresh because it uses their older, narrower web design. The Daily Mail strikes again.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 7 April 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Actually if I’m being honest, she doesn’t, but then neither does shampoo – contrary to the actress’s claims.

Writing on her website she warned of “environmental toxins and their effects on our children.” The page has since been taken down, but not even Hollywood actresses can hide from Google, so you can still read the text here. Paltrow pointed to “chemicals that may or may not be safe” as a possible cause of diseases in children and gave suggestions from others for avoiding them:

The research is troubling; the incidence of diseases in children such as asthma, cancer and autism have shot up exponentially and many children we all know and love have been diagnosed with developmental issues like ADHD. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but perhaps we can do things to reduce illness in our children and ourselves. Below you will find some of the most prevalent facts and also easy, affordable ways to reduce exposure to substances which may be harming us.

The advice included “avoiding chemicals” by using olive oil or aloe vera gel in place of shampoo or skin lotion. Olive oil is made up of many types of fatty acids, whilst aloe vera contains, amongst other things, anthraquinone, commonly used in the production of dyes. In other words, both substances are chemicals – as is practically anything else you care to spread on your skin or stick in your mouth.

Many individuals and organisations have come out attacking Paltrow. Cancer Research UK point out that the number of children with cancer has not risen in the past ten years, whilst bacteriologist Professor Hugh Pennington described the claims as “rubbish” and “loopy”. He added:

“It does annoy me when celebrities use their position to spout nonsense. They have a perfect right to their views, even if they are loopy, but they do hold a position of influence. You may as well ask someone on the Underground.”

Quite right. Paltrow is completely abusing her stardom with these claims, and people might be tempted to follow her advice. Why members of the public would choose to listen to her over, say, Cancer Research UK, I have no idea. You only have to look at the popularity of fad diets or the racks of celeb magazines in supermarkets to see that the opinions of actresses’ carry great weight in society. Gwyneth Paltrow is welcome to speak out on whatever she pleases, but I hope next time she tries to be a little more informed.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 5:10 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Activia, Yakult, and Actimel – what do they have in common? Yup, it’s probiotic bacteria of course, and those pesky ad campaigns that seem to dominate our TV ad breaks. Nell McAndrew is a personal favourite…are you feeling bloated?

But, do these so-called ‘friendly bacteria’ actually do anything? The consensus at the moment is that yes, they are beneficial to digestion, encouraging the bacteria that naturally live in your gut to thrive. Our own Imperial College carried out a clinical trial in 2007, showing that drinking probiotic drinks reduced the incidence of diarrhoea occurring as a side effect of antibiotic administration.

But, research this week published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that probiotic bacteria could have a new and very exciting use – in making oral vaccinations possible.

Traditional vaccinations involve injections, which can be problematic. Especially if, like me, you suffer from a fear of needles. So, the idea of an oral vaccination sounds great, but unfortunately making such a vaccine has not been as straightforward as it sounds.

The problem is that the vaccine formulation designed for injection would be quickly digested in the stomach into inactive constituents.  However, the key finding of this paper is the discovery that if the vaccine is combine with probiotic bacteria, it is protected from being destroyed by digestion.  The vaccine can therefore reach the small intestine, the optimum destination for the vaccine, leading to a powerful immune response being evoked.

To test the vaccine, they fed an oral anthrax vaccine (combined with the probiotic bacteria) to one group of mice and gave another the traditional vaccine via injection. When they exposed the mice to the anthrax bacteria, the immune response produced by the mice given the oral vaccine was much more powerful than in the mice receiving the injected vaccine.

Benefits other than being a pain-free alternative, include a lack of side effects.  Because probiotics are natural stimulators of the immune response, additives are not required in the oral vaccine. It is thought that it is the additives in traditional vaccines that are responsible for the side effects of vaccinations at the moment.

With the future of vaccinations looking more like dessert than scary syringes, make mine a strawberry yogurt!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 March 2009 at 9:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Stunning CT scanner art

Satre Stuelke is an artist and medical student who uses a CT scanner to examine every-day objects in a new way. CT scanners are normally intended for medical imaging, but by using them to create art and inviting others to join him, Stuelke hopes to “plant a seed of scientific creativity in the minds of all those inclined to participate.” I quite like this image of a set of Russian nested dolls:

The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.
The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.

Science exams are slipping

Ofqual, the government body that regulates examinations, has said that an investigation in to the standard of teaching in GCSE science has “raised significant causes for concern.” It said that the exams are not up to standards, and do not offer enough of a challenge to the most able students. The following recommendations were made:

  • Improved quality of questions, to stretch and challenge all students
  • Work, including further training for senior examiners,  to improve the quality of objective tests
  • Tighter marking criteria to ensure that only the answers deserving of the marks are credited
  • Some internal assessment tasks have been revised to ensure better challenge to students and a closer link to the practical work. These changes took effect from last September.
  • Where possible within the existing specifications, the number of options available to candidates has been reduced. 

It’s vital that we keep exam standards high. Ofqual said that mathematics and English literature exams are maintaining their quality, so why has science been allowed to slip?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 22 March 2009 at 3:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Prince Charles, Told Off

Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company, which recently hit the headlines with its false “detox” claims, has been .

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) informed Duchy Originals they must change the product description on their website. The MHRA granted Duchy Originals a license to sell their products, but not to make claims on their effects. At time of writing, the product page remains unchanged.

Underwater volcano

Earlier this week a volcano off the coast Tonga erupted from in the Pacific Ocean. This spectacular display has resulted in the formation of a new island, made up of pumice as the result of emerging lava and gas.

To the stratosphere on just £56

The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.
The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.

Four students at a Spanish school have capture images of the stratosphere using a weather balloon and camera that cost just £56. Whilst there is no clear boundary between the Earth and outer space, the stratosphere is defined to be between 20 and 50km above sear level.

Aged between 18 and 19, the students attend the IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia. Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort were “overwhelmed” with their results, and had to travel 10km to find the balloon when it eventually came crashing back to Earth.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

The BBC have a very thought provoking article on vaccines from Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol. He talks about our society’s need to classify things as “good” or “bad, “natural” or “unnatural” – vaccines often falling in the latter category. What exactly is “natural” though? Finn presents the following list and asks us to decide which is natural:

  • 1 – toilet rolls made from recycled paper
  • 2 – supermarket plastic bags you chuck away after one use
  • 3 – flying first class to New York to go shopping
  • 4 – walking to the top of a Welsh mountain
  • 5 – eating an apple you just picked in your garden
  • 6 – eating a microwaved preprepared dinner

He expects that we would pick options 1, 4 and 5. I might quibble about 1 – toilet paper seems very “unnatural” to me, even if it is recycled – but 4 and 5 fit my personal definition. He then argues that if we take natural to mean “the way it used to be before modern civilisation came along”, none of these things fit the definition. I’ll agree that the cultivation of apples has been changed by modern civilisation, but walking to the top of mountain? Not sure how that has changed, which does weaken his argument slightly.

Ultimately, I think it’s a pretty pointless distinction to make. “Natural” is not that far removed from “the way God intended”, which is certainly not an argument I want to get into. Much of the rest of the article is devoted to explaining why vaccines could be considered more “natural” than prescribing pills or performing surgery, but it is the very end that really got me thinking:

Look around any room crowded with young and middle-aged adults – next time you go to see a film for example – and imagine scores of empty seats that would be there if all those whose lives had been saved by vaccines were suddenly to vanish.

Imagine all your family and friends and then, arbitrarily, remove or cripple one in 20.

This image instantly hit me. I could picture sitting in a cinema and watching 5% of the people around me fading away. At a very rough estimate, using a population figure of 40 million aged 15-64, 2 million people are alive and healthy today because of vaccination – in other words, twice the population of Birmingham. If that’s not a convincing argument for vaccination, I’m not sure what is.

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3 Comments » Posted on Monday 16 March 2009 at 7:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Health & Medicine

Last Sunday I said “Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime.” I’m actually still a bit ill, with the cold hanging on as a nasty wheezing cough.

I’m not the only one of course – it’s called the “common” cold for a reason. It is reported that people taking days off to get over their colds cost the US economy $40 billion a year, so why haven’t we found a cure yet?

Blame Darwin. Or rather, evolution. Viruses, such as the rhinovirus that causes colds, multiply incredibly quickly. With each new generation of the cold viruses, natural selection means that the most resilient (and thus hardest to cure) survive.

Matters are made worse by the diversity of the rhinovirus. There are more than 100 continuously evolving subspecies, each of which can give you a bunged up head and a few days off work. Compare that number to the polio virus, which has just three subspecies, and it’s easy to see why we haven’t eradicated the common cold in the same manner as polio.

Evolution may be to blame for the rhinovirus resilience, but our understanding of Darwin’s theory could help us conquer it eventually. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah, examined the rhinovirus genome in search of clues.

Using computer modelling, they were able to identify the sections of the genome that provide the virus with its resistance. In the evolutionary arms race, the rhinovirus has developed to evade detection by our immune systems. Keith Crandall, professor of biology at the university, was co-author of the study:

“The virus is evolving solutions against the immune system and drugs,” Crandall said. “The more we can learn about how the virus evolves solutions, the better we can rid the body of these infections.”

It’s not a cure, but it’s another stepping stone on the way. Without Darwin, work like this would be impossible as we would have no understanding of how viruses can adapt to our immune defences. By studying the rhinovirus genome, we can try to stay one step ahead of evolution and beat the cold for good. Hopefully by then I’ll have stopped coughing.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 March 2009 at 1:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Prince Charles has come under fire for his range of food supplements, the health claims of which have been labelled “outright quackery”.

Edzard Ernst, who is professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, says that the Prince is contributing to the ill-health of the nation by promoting the “detox” and “quick fix” lifestyle, whilst ignoring scientific information.

Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture is just one of the many products sold by the Prince’s company, Duchy Originals, which was established in 1990. The tincture, which contains artichoke and dandelion, is said by the company to “to help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes, and help maintain healthy digestion.”

Artichoke is described as “a well known vegetable that can be used in a variety of different dishes, and is also a well known digestive aid.” Clearly it is so “well known” that no evidence is needed to back up this claim.

Amusingly, Duchy Originals say nothing about the medicinal benefits of dandelion, although it “can be included in salads, the dried roots can be used as a coffee substitute, and it is also used to flavour herb beers and soft drinks.” Yummy.

Andrew Baker, chief executive of Duchy Originals, took objection to Ernst’s statements:

“Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture contains globe artichoke and dandelion, which both have a long history of traditional use for aiding digestion. There is no ‘quackery’, no ‘make believe’, no ‘superstition’ in any of the Duchy Originals herbal tinctures. We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity.”

Ernst answers that whilst there is some evidence that artichoke can lower your cholesterol, other substances perform better – and dandelions are completely useless. He believes that it is wrong to sell these detox potions – mainly because they don’t work. No studies exist to demonstrate their effects on toxins in the blood, because the effectively do nothing.

This isn’t the first time Prince Charles has been called out on scientific accuracy – I wrote about his misconceptions on GM food last year – and it’s not the first time Ernst has clashed with the Prince either. He believes he almost lost his job in 2005, after being accused of breaking a confidentiality agreement by Clarence House, official residence of the Prince. He commented to a newspaper that findings of a Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine report on alternative therapies and the NHS was “outrageous and deeply flawed”.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 March 2009 at 8:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

A new method for creating stem cells could see life-saving research move forwards, thanks to a team of scientists in the UK and Canada.

Stem cells are sought after because they can be turned into any type of cell in the human body, potentially providing great medical benefits. There are two types – embryonic, and adult.

Working with embryonic stem cells can be very problematic for scientists, as producing them involves the destruction of human embryos, which religious groups and others object to on moral grounds.

Up until now, scientists have attempted to avoid the issue by using viruses to revert adult stem cells to an embryonic state. This method is not without problems however, as the genetically reprogrammed cells were liable to contain genes which cause cancer, making them unusable for human transplantation.

Two teams led by Dr Keisuke Kaji from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Andras Nagy from the University of Toronto worked together to eliminate the need for viruses by modifying adult human skin cells.

The new process was discovered after a chance meeting between the two men. They realised they had each solved half of the puzzle, and worked together to produce adult stem cells that behave exactly like embryonic ones.

Dr Kaji and colleagues had discovered a way to insert the four necessary genes into a cell in one go, but not how to remove them fully. Meanwhile, Dr Nagy’s team had figured out how to remove the necessary genes from a cell once they had been inserted, but not how to get them there in the first place. By joining forces, they could carry out both tasks successfully. Dr Kaji said:

“I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes. Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible. This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine, and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”

With this discovery following President Obama lifting his predecessor’s ban on stem cell research shortly after taking office earlier this year, things are certainly looking up for scientists.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 February 2009 at 12:18 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Technology, eh? If it isn’t enough that Facebook gives you cancer, now the BBC says that “Games consoles ’cause skin sores’”. I’ve got a wonderful mental image of a radioactive GameBoy.

A report published in the British Journal of Dermatology declares the discovery of PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, a “new” skin condition displayed by a 12-year-old girl admitted to a Swiss hospital.

The sore red marks and lumps on the patients hands were indicative of idiopathic eccrine hidradenitis, or swollen sweat glands. The condition is typically found on the soles of the feet of children who partake in have physical activity, such as jogging. This particular patient had not undertaken any such activity recently, however.

What she had been doing was playing a PlayStation game (the Sims) for hours on end each day, and she continued to play ever after the lesions appeared on her hands. As such, the doctors treating her suggested that the condition should be labelled as a more specific variant, PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, because “[e]xcessive video gaming is currently regarded as an alarming
health issue”.

This is nonsense. To label this condition as specific to games consoles, let alone one particular brand of games console, is completely pointless. It’s clearly a case of swollen sweat glands in the patients plam, a diagnosis that is fully covered by the doctors’ ultimate choice of idiopathic palmar eccrine hidradenitis. To stick “PlayStation” in there as well smacks of nothing more than sensationalism. A spokesman for Sony, manufacturers of the PlayStation, responded to the news:

“As with any leisure pursuit there are possible consequences of not following common sense, health advice and guidelines, as can be found within our instruction manuals,” he said.

“We do not wish to belittle this research and will study the findings with interest. This is the first time we have ever heard of a complaint of this nature,” he added.

Belittle it all you want, Sony. It’s rubbish.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 20 February 2009 at 7:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

To be fair to the Daily Mail, their headline was the slightly more reserved “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“, but the sentiment is the same. Are users of the popular social network putting their health at risk with every status update?

The Mail’s report is based on a paper published in the journal Biology by Dr Aric Sigman, who has previously suggested that watching sex on TV makes teenagers more likely to become pregnant – so he’s already sliding in to the “spouts nonsense” category of my personal sliding scale of scientists. His paper is available for anyone to read though, which wins him back a few points. I decided to have a read before drawing any conclusions.

First off, it’s important to point out that Signman has not actually done any new research, but merely analysed the work of others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this type of so-called meta-analysis can often produce interesting and useful results.

Sigman begins by referencing two papers that describe the dwindling hours people spend with real-world, face-to-face, contact. Fair enough, except that one is based on data from 2004 and the other from 2000, although both sources published this data some time later. What’s the problem? Well, MySpace launched in late 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Now the two biggest social network websites, they would have had little or indeed no impact when this data was collected.

The paper is entitled Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’, but as far as I can tell none of the references it draws on make any mention of online social networks. Instead, the papers that Sigman has reviewed tend to discuss the health effects of real-life social networks.

I’m torn here. The Daily Mail’s headline is clearly wrong, but I feel I can’t place full blame at their feet. Sigman has extrapolated from other sources, and mistaken correlation for causation. It’s one thing for a paper to say that patients with increased social activities show higher levels of Natural Killer T cells (tumour fighters, essentially), but it’s quite another to say that communicating online will have a detrimental effect. Who knows, it might even have the same effect – Sigman doesn’t know either way, because he hasn’t actually looked into it.

There is also the matter of this graph:

Pretty damning evidence from the looks of it: people are spending more time with computers and the like, and less with each other. Certainly a correlation, but does that mean that one has caused the other? No.

In addition, the caption reads “Hours per day of face-to-face social interaction declines as use of electronic media increases. These trends are predicted to increase (data abstracted from a series of time-use and demographic studies)”. In other words it has been cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, and as the origin of data is not listed it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from the graph.

I think it’s safe to say that Facebook, nor indeed any other website, will give you cancer. At the same time, I’m struggling to figure out whether Sigman has anything at all to say about the health effects of social networking, or if he has just thrown together a bunch of information in the hopes that some of it sticks to the likes of the Daily Mail. Hmm.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 February 2009 at 5:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Just A Review

After Ben Goldacre’s recent troubles I decided that it was probably time to pick his book up off my post-Christmas reading pile. Now I regret not getting to Bad Science sooner, as I’ve been unable to put it down – to the extent of perversely wishing that my Tube journeys were longer so I could keep reading!

Goldacre could have made writing a book very easy on himself – package up favourites from his Guardian column and blog, write a short introduction, and then slap a cover and a price tag on them. In fact, that’s exactly what fellow Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker did in his book Dawn of the Dumb. I’m not knocking Brooker, I find him hilarious, but Goldacre has done so much more.

Goldacre manages to be as methodical as he is amusing in his examination of the pseudoscience peddled by nutritionists, homeopaths and the media at large. Much of the work is based on his columns – in research for my post yesterday about risk I came across a treatment of the subject on, then coincidentally read more or less the same passage in the book later that evening – but it is expanded and refined in the way a weekly column just can’t hope to be.

The chapters are more or less standalone, but the book is still best read in order to appreciate Goldacre’s building to his finale: The Media’s MMR Hoax. He clearly explains the history of the fiasco as well as the actual evidence showing that MMR is not harmful. Throughout the book we are taught how the quality of a study can be evaluated, and in the final chapter Goldacre puts this knowledge to good use. The studies are even fully referenced in the back of the book, so you can go and check them out for yourself if you fancy that sort of thing.

If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that the title of the book should really be “Bad Medical Science”. As a medical doctor it’s only fair that Goldacre cover his field of expertise, but I’m not sure I detected even the smallest whiff of physics.

It doesn’t really matter. I heartily recommend Bad Science to everyone. It’s completely accessible, a cracking read, and you’ll actually learn something whilst laughing. It’s a shame to think that the people who most need to read this book, the people throwing away their money on useless treatments peddled by charlatans, probably never will.

Goldacre admits as much, closing the book by speaking directly to those he has criticised. “You win,” he says, attributing their victory to a near-complete media dominance. To Goldacre I say this: keep fighting. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 10 February 2009 at 10:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s not a very catchy headline, is it? It would have been much better to go with the Guardian’s Cannabis doubles testicular cancer risk, says US study – now that sounds scary. If you haven’t figured it out through my dripping sarcasm, we’re talking about two old friends: relative versus absolute risk.

We last saw the pair in the shocking news that drinking beer increases your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth (in other words, to about 0.073%). In case you’ve forgotten, let’s cover the basics again quickly.

Imagine there is a 1% chance of contracting a disease, meaning that in a given time frame (usually a year) we can expect 1 in 100 people to have this disease. Now, suppose that research finds that eating ice cream makes you more likely to get this disease – perhaps 3 in 100 ice-cream eaters have it, meaning there is a 3% chance you will contract the disease if you eat ice cream.

Relative risk is best thought of in terms of multiplication. By eating ice cream, your relative risk of the disease has trebled, because 1% becomes 3%.

Absolute risk is more like addition. An additional 2 people in every 100 will contract the disease if they eat ice cream.

Now, it’s clear why newspapers prefer relative risk to absolute risk. “Trebled” sounds much better than “plus 2″ in a headline. It’s a much less useful statistic however, especially when dealing with events with a low chance of occurring.

I must say though that in this case, if we look at the original paper, I think it’s actually the scientists who are to blame. In their words:

“We observed a 70% increased risk of TGCT associated with current marijuana use.”

That 70% is relative risk, not absolute. It’s also not double, which would be an increase of 100% in relative terms. That’s because the research showed a 70% relative increase for men in general, but the Guardian went with “double” which only applied to regular cannabis users, or those who started smoking before they were 18. To be fair, this is partially explained in the second paragraph, and then clarified towards the end.

So where did I get my un-catchy headline from? I once again turned to Cancer Research for some absolute risk statistics. In the UK, 7.1 men per 100,000 of the population contract testicular cancer. Dividing these two numbers gives us the absolute risk of 0.0071%, which I simply multiplied by 1.7 to calculate the 70% increase used in the headline.

I don’t know about you, but I think 0.01207% is pretty low. It’s because testicular cancer is actually one of the rarest forms of cancer that there is, so even a massive (relative) increase in risk results in a pretty small chance of catching it anyway. To me, that’s just not news – and yet pretty much anything involving cancer makes it in to the papers.

Remember: relative risk, and absolute risk. The difference is pretty important.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 9 February 2009 at 8:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The controversy over the MMR vaccine, which continues to this day, will be studied by science communicators for years to come. The suggestion of a link between the vaccine and the onset of autism was first put forward by a team lead by Andrew Wakefield, and published in The Lancet in 1998. Now it appears that Wakefield may have fabricated the data on which the entire study was built.

Early in the course at Imperial, we examined the role of the media in this case. Wakefield and colleagues held a press conference to announce his findings, stating:

“It’s a moral issue for me. I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination, until this issue has been resolved.”

In class, we were asked to imagine ourselves as reporters at the press conference – what would our reaction to this news be? The answer was more or less unanimous: it’s headline news. If the Sunday Times’ allegations are true, then Wakefield knowingly acted to deceive and defraud his fellow scientists, the press, and the public at large.

The Sunday Times has found that the medical history of the 12 children presented in The Lancet differs from the corresponding hospital and GP records. Whilst Wakefield claimed that the children developed problems with in days of the jab, in all but one case was this true according to medical records. In fact, many of the children had shown signs of autism before vaccination.

Wakefield linked MMR to autism by suggesting that the vaccination could cause bowel disease in children, which then lead to damage in their brains. It was reported that 11 of the 12 children’s bowels were diseased, but the Sunday Times investigation shows that at least seven showed no abnormalities. It was only after a “research review” of the tests that Wakefield and his team decided that these results should be revised.

The selection of children for the study has also been brought into question. Two of the children were brothers from East Sussex, whilst a further two shared a GP in Tyneside. None of the 12 children came from London, nor were they routine visitors to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead. Many of the children’s parents had heard of Wakefield before though the MMR vaccine campaign, Jabs, compromising the scientific norm of a truly random sample.

It transpires that Wakefield himself was in the employ of Jabs’s lawyer Richard Barr. In June 1996, one month before the admittance of any of the children to the Royal Free, the pair sent a confidential document to the Legal Aid Board. It described a “new syndrome” suspiciously like the one reported in The Lancet twenty months later. They were successfully awarded money for research by the board.

The Sunday Times previously reported that in addition to research funding, Wakefield earned £435,643 through Barr.

Are these the actions of a man who’s interest is in uncovering scientific truth? To date, no one has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings. As I said last week: please, vaccinate your children.

4 Comments » Posted on Friday 6 February 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Ben Goldacre is well known for his battle against Bad Science, both in his Guardian column and on his website. On Tuesday he posted a recording of a show hosted by Jeni Barnett of LBC Radio, in which she discusses the MMR vaccine. Goldacre accused Barnett of misrepresenting the dangers of the vaccine, despite the numerous scientific studies which have now shown there to be no link between MMR and autism. Many members of the British public continue to believe that there is, which is why this story has been running for over a decade. The BBC have a decent timeline.

Yesterday, Goldacre received a warning from the lawyers of LBC, instructing him that posting the audio of the show was an infringe of copyright. Goldacre makes it clear that the reason for posting the audio was so that he could not be accused of misrepresenting Barnett’s views, but in the end had no option but to remove the audio.

It was at this point that a small corner of the internet exploded.

The audio was first uploaded to WikiLeaks, which offers hosting to leaked documents in any form. With servers around the world, it’s extremely hard to get anything removed once it’s on the site. Numerous bloggers have also taken it upon themselves to host the audio, along with a transcript:

Part 1 – Science Punk
Part 2 – The Lay Scientist
Part 3 – PodBlack Cat
Part 4 – The Skeptic’s Book
Part 5 – Science Punk
Part 6 – Holford Watch

So that’s the history. What was actually said? Well, Barnett accuses pharmaceutical companies of trying to make money by forcing vaccinations on children, uses anecdotal evidence of her family to try and claim that the MMR jab is unnecessary anyway, talks about having the “courage” to turn away from the vaccinating herd, and generally spreads dangerous misinformation. Thanks to the hard work of others you can read the entire transcript for yourself, but here are some choice quotes, along with a link to the blog hosting them:

Now back in the day (and that’s an expression I’ve learned from my [unclear] son), back in the day, children got measles, children got mumps. I’m not suggesting – I am not suggesting – that we got backwards where some children, where we have one in fifteen children die of it. And that one person in fifteen is the one we have to be looking at and wondering why and dealing with it. But if, as a human being, you decide you do not want to give your child a vaccination, you should, in a democracy, have that right to say no.”

Stick the kids out running in air, ban cars on the road, make them have six hours a day PE at school give them an hour every single day where they’re running around playing rounders and walls and not just – a few! My daughter’s beautiful boy Nathan, he’s a footballer and he gets an infection and he falls over – he gets better, because he’s always running and jumping and doing star-jumps or whatever you do!”

But let me put this to you – my nan, if you had an ear infection, would have put salt in a sock, heated it up, somehow (she didn’t have a microwave), put it behind your ear and good golly, Miss Molly, that ear infection would slow down in some way.

Now, there’s not a lot of science in it, but it blooming well worked!”

Obviously, it goes on and on. Jeni Barnett doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about, an in fact has freely admitted as much on her own blog.

“I am not a scientist, I would not claim to be a scientist. When tested on the contents of the MMR vaccine I told the truth. I did not have the facts to hand. Was I ill informed? Yes.As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared as a parent, however, I can fight my corner. I don’t know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful.”

How does she know cigarettes are harmful, I wonder? Perhaps due to an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating this to be the case – in much the same way that MMR has been shown not to be linked with autism.

It’s terribly important that people like Jeni Barnett are called out, as news released today demonstrates. The Health Protection Agency has published the latest annual measles figures for last year, and the increase is shocking, with 1,348 confirmed cases in 2008 (a provisional figure), compared to 56 a decade earlier:

Dr Mary Ramsay, an immunisation expert at the Health Protection Agency, points out that the majority of these cases could have been avoided, had the children been given the MMR vaccination.

“What is so alarming is that the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR.

“There are still many children out there who were not vaccinated as toddlers over the past decade and remain unprotected. Unfortunately this means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children.

Measles is not a simple childhood disease, but a serious infection that can be life threatening if it developments into complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. If you have non-vaccinated children, I urge you to take them to your local GP.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 February 2009 at 4:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Flesh of Physics

Carl Zimmer over at Discover magazine has a really interesting post about biomechanics – the study of life in motion. It began in 1872 when Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, allegedly placed a bet of $25,000 that when a horse is trotting there are instances when none of its legs are touching the ground. He paid a photographer to capture a horse in motion using a series of cameras and tripwires, and was eventually proved right. Thus the field of biomechanics was born.

Interestingly enough, even though we know now much about how animals move, depictions of motion are often horribly inaccurate. Apparently 41% of museum displays pose their animals incorrectly, and a shocking 63.6% of animal anatomy books depict positions an animal would never adopt in real life. Check out the full article for an interesting read.

Pretty lights and sounds

Peter Bennett, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, has invented a nifty little sequencer that uses ball bearings to place the beat. It’s been doing the rounds (here’s a Telegraph article) so I thought I’d share the video:

Science on the BBC

The BBC are launching a new line up of science programmes on BBC2, starting this year with a four-part series featuring Professor Lesley Regan who will examine the science behind the marketing of drugs, diets, and other health products.

Two more will follow in 2010, with a look at The History of Science (working title), a programme presented by Michael Mosley that will take a look at some of the big scientific milestones, and Seven Wonders of the Solar System, in which Brian Cox will explore space using the magic of CGI. Apparently, another big science announcement from the Beeb is due this month.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 29 January 2009 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Doing the rounds is a story about a painful-sounding affliction known as “cello scrotum” – and yes, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Thing is, “cello scrotum” doesn’t actually exist; rather, it was made up by doctor Elaine Murphy (now Baroness Murphy) in a letter sent to the British Medical Journal in 1974.

Spotting a similar problem called “guitar nipple”, supposedly caused by a guitar player’s breast rubbing up against their instrument (oo-er…) was the inspiration for Murphy’s hoax. She and suspected the report to be a spoof, so set around inventing their own mythical malady and submitting it to the BMJ.

Murphy made her husband John sign the letter to avoid getting herself into trouble, and the couple have been “dining out” on the hoax for years. There have been a few references to “cello scrotum” in the medical literature over the years, but it was after seeing it resurface in the 2008 Christmas edition of the BMJ that Murphy decided it was time to come clean.

Any cello players amongst you should rest assured, there really is no such thing as cello scrotum. As Murphy’s new letter says, “[a]nyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.”

The story should be a reminder to everyone however: journal editors are human too, and mistakes can (and do) slip through. If you see something a bit funny, follow it up – you might uncover the next “cello scrotum”! I’ll leave you with everyone’s favourite internet meme, the lolcat:

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 January 2009 at 7:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail and Telegraph seem to think so. The latter also went with “Obesity can be caught as easily as the common cold, say scientists” as the headline, along with this cracking photo:

The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...
The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...

The research comes from Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana, where a team lead by Professor Nikhil Dhurandhar found that chickens and mice infected with an adenovirus gained more weight than their uninfected brethern, even when given the same amount of food.

Adenoviruses are commonly known as a cause of respiratory infections. The particular virus in question is known as human adenovirus 36 or AD-36. In a previous study published in 2005, Dhurandhar found that whilst 11% of non-obese adults carry the virus, the figure shoots up to 30% in the obese population.

Does this mean that the easily-spread virus is responsibly for obesity? Well, whilst the team’s research showed that cells infected with AD-36 absorbed fat more easily, it can’t be the sole cause – after all, only 30% of obese adults are infected.

The Telegraph article soon backs down from its inflammatory headline (no doubt added by some hapless sub-editor), with quotes from numerous people questioning the claim. Dr Ian Campbell, a GP and medical director of the charity Weight Concern spells it out:

“A virus will never be the reason for why we have an obesity epidemic.

“There are far too many other factors, starting with our calorie intake exceeding our expenditure, and that’s because we live such sedentary lives.

“Our dietary habits have changed beyond belief and I don’t believe that’s the effect of a viral infection – it is the fault of the commercial expansion of companies making unhealthy foods.”

So, whilst AD-36 could be a contributing factor, the most important aspect of weight gain is simple. To butcher Dickens:

“Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake nineteen hundred, result happiness. Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake twenty-one hundred, result misery”

In other words, it’s the same old boring advice; eat less, exercise more.

As an aside, it’s interesting that David over at Sciencebase notes that Dhurandhar has been chasing the “obesity bug” for over a decade, seemingly trying to replicate the medical paradigm shift that occurred after the realisation that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria, and not stress as previously thought. Scientists are people too, and like everyone else they have their own personal agendas. One to look out for, I think.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 6 January 2009 at 6:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review, Mathematics

Ah, iPlayer. What would I do without you? I didn’t manage to catch the BBC4 broadcast of the first episode of Science and Islam last night, but thanks to the wonderful catch-up service I am able to provide you with a full review. Of course, services like the iPlayer would be impossible without the internet, which in turn could never arisen without first inventing the computer. And what makes computer software tick? Algorithms.

An algorithm is basically a set of instructions, broken down in to simple steps. A computer can follow an algorithm to do pretty much anything, which is why we find them so versatile. As presenter Jim Al-Khalili (a physicist born in Bagdad) tells us, algorithms were invented by a Persian man known as Mohammad ebne Mūsā Khwārazmī, or al-Khwārizmī. Even the word algorithm is derived from his name.

It’s not just algorithms that have been given to us by medieval Arab scholars. The words algebra and alkalis both betray their Arabic origin, but so much of science is attributed to the West. The three part series seeks to unearth the unsung heroes of Islamic science.

The rulers of the Islamic empire realised that with knowledge comes power, and as they spread their influence across the globe the sought out scientific texts from many different regions and cultures. These texts were translated into Arabic, the official language of the empire, which just so happened to be a very scientific language. Originally intended to communicate the teachings of the Koran without misinterpretation, its detailed scripts allowed a precise and unambiguous description of many scientific phenomena.

Much of our modern knowledge can be traced back to this extensive library. In one part of the programme, Al-Khalili visits a modern surgeon to get him to perform a cataract operation by following an Arabic text and using replica instruments from the time. Thankfully for the squeamish the operation is carried out on an eye that has long since been separated from its owner, and the surgeon admits that the instructions are based on sound principles. Indeed, Islamic science provides us with one of the very first anatomical diagrams, showing how the eye is controlled by surrounding muscles.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this programme and an earlier BBC4 one, namely Marcus du Sautoy’s The Story of Maths. Both adopt a sort of travelogue approach, but whilst the earlier programme consisted of nothing but all du Sautoy, all the time, Science and Islam is nicely broken up with contributions from many others. They do cover similar ground however, especially when Al-Khalili meets mathematician Ian Stewart to examine one of the early texts on al-jabr; that is, algebra.

The conclusion of this episode is that by gathering texts from many different places, Islamic scientists proved that science is a universal concept that belongs to no one religion or culture; rather, it can be appreciated by everyone. No arguments here. I will say that at an hour, the programme was perhaps overly long. I can lay the same criticism against it as I did to The Story of Maths – less of our narrator wandering through generic marketplaces please! At least there was no dodgy CGI, however.

As I said at the start, I watched the programme on iPlayer, so of course so can you. If you liked The Story Of Maths, or perhaps if you missed it but want to learn about the history of science, I suggest you give it a look.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 29 December 2008 at 6:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust set up to promote science in public, has released its third annual “celebrity audit”. The document details the claims of those in the public eye in relation to science, and highlights that celebs all too often don’t have their facts straight. Whether you like it or not, celebrities hold power in our society, so we should really encourage them to get their science right.

During the US presidential campaign I praised both Obama and McCain for their views on science, but it seems that they have both linked the MMR vaccine with autism – a big no-no. Despite the controversy around the vaccine, it has been shown again and again to be safe. Obama said of autism:

“Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Sorry Mr President-Elect, you may be the saviour of the world, but that’s just not good enough. Continuing in America, Scientologist wacko Tom Cruise hit out against psychiatry in a video leaked to the internet:

“Psychiatry doesn’t work. [...] When you study the effects it’s a crime against humanity.”

This is despite the millions of people helped by psychiatry. Really, when you release movies like Mission Impossible III, I don’t think you have any right to throw the phrase “crime against humanity” around lightly…

Over in the UK, it seems our celebrity chefs have been doing their parts to muddy the scientific waters. Nigella Lawson has been supporting the Mind Meal, said by the charity Mind to help people with mental health problems. The Domestic Goddess said:

“The Mind Meal is an excellent idea – good, simple food that can help you to feel different about life”

Dietitian Catherine Collins suggests that the “specialist allergy foods and expensive ingredients” are “an unnecessary expense”, and not worth promoting.

Meanwhile, Delia Smith wants to cut out sugar from our nation’s diet in order to curb obesity. In contrast, Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says that sugar is actually an important part of a balanced diet, and is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. She also says that the causes of obesity are “much more complex”.

Sense About Science suggest that any celebrities looking for scientific advice would do well to call them first. I don’t think we should discourage famous people from speaking out on science, but I do think they should know what they’re talking about!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 December 2008 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

With the year wrapping up, science news is thinning out and the last weekly roundup is looking a bit lean. Still, here we go!

It might not be an iPhone, but it can help save lives

Using only a cheap camera phone and some light sensors, scientists at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute have developed a portable blood tester that could monitor HIV, malaria and leukaemia, as well as detecting other diseases.

Super-phone to the rescue!
Super-phone to the rescue!

The work of Dr. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA will cut out the more traditional method of sending blood to a lab and waiting weeks for a result, allowing accurate analysis in mere minutes. Not only will it cutting waiting time, but the phone scanner is a fraction of a cost of the massive machines used by lab technicians.

The phone is the perfect tool for developing countries, with use already widespread in areas without a landline network. Phones that come with both a camera and the ability to run the analysis software provide everything needed to save lives in one tidy package.

Nano-nano vroom-vroom

With oil supplies dwindling, car companies are increasingly developing smaller and smaller vehicles for everyday use. None of them can compare to the latest development of one Prof. James Tour however, who recently picked up the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for the development of a car just four nanometres across.

Pimp my nano-ride.
Pimp my nano-ride.

It consists of a chassis and working engine, a suspension system and rotating wheels made from a special form of carbon known as the buckyball, which forms a sphere-like shape from 60 carbon atoms. Tour hopes that inventions like his nanocar and an accompanying nanotruck, capable of carrying a payload, could one day be used to build large scale objects such as buildings by shunting around atoms.

He’s not expecting such developments any time soon however – he says that such applications are so far off that it isn’t even worth patenting the technology, because by the time it could be used to make money the patents would have expired!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 27 December 2008 at 7:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

If a health risk is increased by a fifth, is that a lot? More importantly, should you worry about it? Many news outlets are reporting on a story from the World Cancer Research Fund that just one pint of beer a day, or other alcohol equivalent, can increase your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. I’m going to pick on the Daily Mail in particular (mainly for the comments which I’ll get to later), but all of the stories are pretty much the same.

The question is, should I be worried enough to cut back on having a few pints, especially during this festive season? The important number here is not the relative risk (an increase of a fifth) but the absolute risk. According to Cancer Research UK, there are 61 diagnoses of bowel cancer in the UK for every 100,000 people each year. In other words, the chance of you getting bowel cancer is 61/100,000, or 0.061%.

Now, these statistics will include all instances of bowel cancer, including drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but for the moment let’s pretend that it’s only non-drinkers. Then, if everyone in the UK takes up drinking a pint a day, and thus risk of bowel cancer increase by a fifth for everyone, around 12 more people in every 100,000 will be diagnosed each year, corresponding to an absolute risk of 0.073%. I’m fudging the maths a little bit, because I don’t know how alcohol factors in to the Cancer Research UK data, but I’m actually making it look worse than it really is, because with accurate information on the effect of alcohol, the increase in risk would be even smaller. Remember, I’m making the (very wrong) assumption that no-one in the UK drinks!

In other words, when you look at the risk in absolute terms, it has hardly increased at all. Personally, those figures don’t worry me in the slightest. Yet, all of the mainstream media run the story with “beer makes you a fifth more likely to get cancer” because that is the eye-catching headline. The trouble is, we’re often giving conflicting information about whether drinking (in moderation) is “good” or “bad” for us, and this “flip-flopping” causes a cynicism of science apparent in both the Daily Mail’s headline (“Cheers! Now they tell us beer and wine give us cancer”) and it’s commenters. A typical example is this comment from Bryan Caffyn:

Please when will they,the so called experts, make up their minds, last week we were being told by the very same people, a glass or two of wine would reduce the risk of all sorts, now its going to increase the chance of bowel or liver cancer. Even by this barmy bunches standards this is crazy, time gormless gordon dare I say took the lead, no I musn´t be silly, Christmas is over.

What these stories don’t get across is that most substances we consume are both improve and are detrimental to our health. The science isn’t wrong (I’m assuming, of course, having not read any actual papers); there really is an increased risk of bowel cancer from drinking. That doesn’t mean that drinking can’t also have beneficial effects in other ways. When the changes in absolute risk are so small, however, who really cares? A fifth of relative risk just isn’t enough to be worth worrying about!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 2:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Now call me a cynic if you like, but when I read a story about a blind man navigating a maze that he cannot see my bullshit meter immediatly starts to tingle. As it happens, I’m right – to a certain extent at least.

The news is that man known anonymously as TN has successfully walked along a corridor full of obstacles, despite having been left blind by a series of strokes. This phenomenon is known as “blindsight”, the strange ability of some blind people to perceive objects that they cannot actually see.

Now, as I understand it, there is nothing physically wrong with TN’s eyes. Rather, his brain has been damaged in such a way that he can no longer control vision. He had already been noted to react to people’s facial expressions, so something must be getting through. Clearly, TN experiences a very different form of blindness compared to those who have sustained damage to their eyes.

I’m not suggesting TN is faking his blindness in any way – he really is genuinely blind. I would compare his condition to a digital camera with a broken screen. Such a camera can still take pictures, but with out a screen to view them on the camera is effectively ‘blind’. Contrast this with a camera that has a working screen, but a broken lense, and you can see the distinction I’m making here. What TN’s brain has effectively done is find a USB cable to hook it up to his brain and allow him to view the pictures – even if he doesn’t actively realise.

Why does this distinction matter? It’s all in the way these stories are reported. ‘Blind man can see’ is a very newsworthy story, but it is also cruel to misrepresent the facts to those with a different kind of blindness to TN. With that in mind, let’s see how the mainstream media reported the findings.

For once, they’ve actually all done pretty well. Each story makes it more or less clear that TN’s blindness is due to brain damage, and that his eyes are still fully functional. They all also include a quote from the study leader, Professor Beatrice de Gelder, who makes it pretty clear what’s going on:

“This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans.

“We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of these evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world.”

So, Merry Christmas guys; you all receive a Just A Theory “Getting It Right” badge of approval. Try and keep it up in 2009!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Warning: This music may cause head injuries

The British Medical Journal is reporting that head banging, the favoured dance of rockers everywhere, may be bad for your health. The detrimental effects can be avoided however, by reducing the motion of the head, rocking out to lower tempo songs or on every other beat, or even resorting to neck braces.

Declan Patton and Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of New South Wales attended concerts of noted metalers including Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, in order to construct a “theoretical head banging model”. It turns out that the risk of neck injury begins at a tempo of 130 beats per minute, but the average head banging song exceeds this at 146 bpm, and could lead to headaches and dizziness. Thankfully, the authors suggest a number of remedies, including public campaigns headed by Cliff Richard and the labelling of CDs with anti-head banging warnings. Rock n’ roll.

Crackle, like a bad reception? It almost works. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pass up the post title

Were things always better in the good old days? It seems that this may not be the case, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. New research has found that negative memories could possibly fade faster than positive ones, as a defence mechanism against getting old.

Scientists at Duke University showed a series of 30 photographs to two groups of adults, one with an average age of 70, another with an average age of 24. Some were fairly mundane whilst others depicted negative images such as acts of violence. It was found that the older group could remember fewer negative images than the younger group – perhaps explaining their rosier outlook on the past.

Still waiting for a comment from the bear in the woods

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Galileo for his work in demonstrating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and in fact revolves around the Sun. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with you nowadays, but back in 1633 Galileo was branded a heretic and forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Pope was speaking at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations with a telescope. He said that understanding the laws of nature could stimulate an appreciation of God’s work.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 December 2008 at 1:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review

The Wellcome Collection’s new War and Medicine exhibition warns that “visitors in may find some images in this exhibition disturbing”. It’s true that the images of warfare, particularly those of survivors, can have quite an effect, but you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting this interesting and thought-provoking display.

Advances in medicine have often been driven by warfare. The exhibition charts this, contrasting the many soldiers killed by disease and famine in the Crimean War with the advances in sanitation and food provision in World War I and II, and through to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Artefacts from these wars such as pill boxes and food rations are presented alongside letters from soldiers, telling tales of terrible conditions.

Visitors also learn of the many medical innovations that resulted from new types of injuries during war. Plastic surgery was a response to the terrible gas attacks of the First World War trenches, and it is this part of the exhibition that exhibition that I found the most harrowing. Nevertheless there is some positivity, with more recent photos of those who have been able to lead normal lives thanks to reconstructive surgery. Nowadays, the most common injuries are to the limbs, which body armour can do nothing to protect against roadside bombs. This in turn is driving research into artificial replacements

I particular appreciated the text on the walls of the exhibition, which presented questions of just how medicine has benefited from war. Yes, a great many medical discoveries have arisen as the result of conflict, but have large wars also draw research away from areas with less military appeal? It certainly left me with ideas to think about.

The only criticism I can lay on the exhibition is one particular exhibit. Near the entrance, a panoramic film of the interior of a rescue helicopter plays in a darkened room. Unfortunately the room is so dark, and the projection under-powered, I found it almost impossible to see what was going on. Indeed, a course-mate walked into a bench in the room because he simply had been unable to see it. My annoyance with this exhibit was furthered by the low droning sounds of the helicopter reverberating around the rest of the exhibition, removing me from my introspective thoughts.

The exhibition opened on 22nd November, and runs until 15th February. Admission is free, and I recommend you go – as long as you can handle the powerful imagery.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 December 2008 at 6:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Google + Magazines = Moogle?

Earlier this week, Google added a large collection of magazines to their already extensive Book Search catalogue. Of particular interest for the scientifically inclined is the entirety of Popular Science magazine, right back to the first issue published in May 1872. If nothing else, it’s quite fun watching the cover design evolve over the decades. You can also check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for much of its history featured the Doomsday Clock on the cover.

No, you can’t call him Batman

Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana are auctioning the chance to name a newly discovered bat. The winner of the bid (which will start at $250,000) gains the scientific naming rights to a species of bat found recently in a Central American forest. Proceeds will be used to fund environmental research in education at the university, and in the animal’s country of origin.

Dr John Bickham, professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue and discoverer of the bat, is being cagey about the exact location of its habitat, but the winner of the auction will be invited on an expedition to the area with Dr Bickham. They better have a serious name, however:

“We want this to be a serious thing. Anyone willing to put up this kind of money would probably not do so just to be flippant,” said Dr Bickham. “In science, we name species after someone who we wish to honour. We want to find someone who’s passionate about the environment and issues of biodiversity. This is about doing something meaningful.”

Watch the chocs at Christmas – dark will fill you up quicker

Everyone loves a bit of chocolate, but at Christmas it’s easy to over do it. Over at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at the University of Copenhagen, they’ve found that dark chocolate may be the solution. Scientists at the Department of Human Nutrition got 16 young men to fast for 12 hours, then offered them 100g of chocolate. One session used milk, and another later on on used dark.

Two and a half hours after the chocolate feast, participants were offered as much pizza as they liked, and instructed to eat until full. It turns out that in the dark chocolate session, they ate 15% less pizza, and reported feeling less like eating sweet, salty or fatty foods.

Dark chocolate has already been shown to have health benefits over milk, what with its healthier fatty acids and antioxidants, but it seems it could now also stop you from overeating. It probably is still to hard to resist that second helping of stuffing, however…

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