Jul 22
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

The book I’m reviewing today, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is a bestseller, and deserves its popularity – it is an enthralling story and a fantastic piece of popular science writing, the first time I have seen bioethics presented in such an engaging manner. It tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, who died of a very unusual cancer of the cervix in 1951. Doctors who treated her cancer at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore took a sample of the excised tumour. Cells from this cancer proved to be ‘immortal’ – if kept in the right environment, they reproduce without end. These were the first human-derived immortal cells to be grown succesfully. They were named HeLa after Henrietta, and rapidly spread to laboratories across the world. Without them, many medical and scientific advances of the past 60 years would have been difficult or impossible.

Henrietta and her husband David Lacks, 1945. Copyright Lacks family. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Henrietta and her husband David Lacks, 1945. Copyright Lacks family. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

At the time, however, informing patients and obtaining their consent before doing this was not required or even commonplace in the US. The cells also proved to have enormous commercial value as they became mass-produced for cell biologists everywhere, but the family only discovered that this had happened decades later, and only by coincidence. Rebecca Skloot’s narrative is divided between historical reconstruction of the lives of Henrietta and her children, and direct accounts of the family’s experiences when Rebecca was researching the story in the early 2000s. Spanning 89 years, the story winds together the threads of research, medical practice, poverty and race. Henrietta’s children experience turmoil as new truths come to light about the way Henrietta and her eldest daughter Elsie were treated by doctors. They also find it difficult to accept that they struggle to obtain medical care because of their income and insurance status, having never received any compensation for the contribution that her cells have made.

Since the books’ publication, there have been some happy developments. In this blog by Nursing student Meg, you can read about the steps Johns Hopkins has taken toward recognising Henrietta’s contribution, nearly 50 years after the fact. A headstone has been placed on Henrietta’s previously unmarked grave. The profits from the book have also been sufficiently healthy to help fund the education of Henrietta’s five grandchildren, meaning that her family at last is gaining something from the story.

In the UK the Human Tissue Act 2004 has considerably strengthened the rights of tissue donors, as I saw firsthand when I had the privilege of learning anatomy by dissection in my first year as a medical student. In the US many issues remain equivocal – in particular, significant commercial gain from one person’s tissues often does not entail compensating them in any way, although the genes and cell lines derived from the them are often patented by individuals or corporations with commercial gain in mind. Thus patent-holders may restrict access to scientific discoveries or demand money for them, but the person from which they are derived often cannot. Thankfully, the current trend international trend in intellectualy property seems to favour the opinion that cells and genes ought not be patented, with all eyes set on Myriad’s patent of the BRCA1 gene for breast cancer. Myriad is set to have its appeal heard in the federal circuit of the US courts. Meanwhile, it remains unclear how to adequately compensate tissue donors for income generated from their samples. 60 years on, the ethical questions raised by Henrietta Lacks are still with us.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Mar 20
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Two dolphins

I recently watched a harrowing documentary, The Cove. It documents a covert operation to film the regular slaughter of dolphins left in a cove after a drive hunt to capture dolphins for marine mammal parks.

Dolphins are intelligent creatures and their meat is not usually intentionally eaten by humans. Purely anecdotally, humans seem to have a greater emotional bond with marine mammals than most other wild mammals. This is an interesting observation, and there are probably interesting psychological and biological reasons behind it.

So I was quite pleased to see this BBC article on today’s front page explaining that swimming with dolphins or keeping them in captivity can be harmful to their health. But then I saw this paragraph:

“Humans do seem to feel a sense of kinship with dolphins, intelligent, playful, talkative creatures that they are. And separate research shows people feel the benefit from getting up close and personal with dolphins, says Dr Dobbs. This is because dolphins are thought to emanate “chi” – the essential life force in Chinese medicine – and the basis of various therapies for clinical depression, autism and brain damage.”

I feel that this completely undermines the serious point of this article.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Jan 10
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Does it matter what swine flu is called?

The 2009 outbreak of non-seasonal influenza, which is classified as  A(H1N1) according to its type of core protein and surface antigens, has popularly been referred to as ’swine flu’ throughout the English-speaking world, and equivalent phrases in other languages – for example la grippe porcine in French.

In some countries, however, governments chose not to refer to the new influenza virus by this name in official publications, presumably because it was felt that the association with pigs was unhelpful to the average person since the transmission is not pig-to-human but human-to-human. In France, bizarrely, it has come to be know as la grippe A for short. To virologists, this merely muddles the issue because most normal seasonal influenza deaths are caused by what they term ‘influenza A’, which in simple terms is a family of flu viruses.

Then, I came across this interview in Le Monde with anthropologist Frédéric Keck of the CNRS, discussing France’s particularly low uptake of swine flu vaccination (<10% of the population). I thought I would summarise it in English for your reading pleasure.

Mr. Keck suggests that in addition to swine flu’s low virulence, a number of local factors explain poor uptake. He mentions ‘playing the precaution card’ which perhaps requires a bit of explanation. In France, health and safety measures and other risk aversion measures are often ascribed to the principe de précaution. This is just a fancy way of saying ‘better safe than sorry’. So perhaps that the public are wary of this overused phrase.

Secondly, he suggests that the act of changing the official name to A(H1N1) made the virus seems less alien and new by removing the reference to its animal origin, more like an ordinary flu virus. At the same time, the national communication campaigns stopped reminding people that it was a new virus about which little was known.

Finally, unlike flu vaccinations in the UK which are co-ordinated through GPs, family doctors in France (who are not as central to healthcare as UK GPs in any case) were not involved in the program.

For interest, let us furhter compare UK and French posters which I cam across this winter:

NHS Swine Flu Poster

Catch it, Bin it, Kill it

Les gestes simples

The UK approach is to have a dedicated telephone line about flu so that other medical enquires are not drowned out. The Catch it-Bin it-Kill it phrase has entered the household in the UK. By comparison, the French poster on the right appears to be a far less effective piece of communication. Small writing and long sentences, for a start. The advice reads “Wash your hand several times a day (with soap or a hydro-alcoholic solution) When you sneeze or cough, cover your hand and nose with your sleeve (or a single use tissue) In case of flu-like symptoms, call your primary care physician (Only call 15 in emergencies)”. The information conveyed covers largely the same topics, but I think here the UK posters (although there’s two of them) put it across far more quickly  and effectively.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Jan 08
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a globally respected co-ordinating body for international public health. Its publications and recommendaitons bring together reliable evidence from across the globe and governments often act accordingly, budget permitting. Of course, as a UN agency, politics does enter into it in the sense that the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, consists of individuals nominated by member countries.

The WHO have principally been in the global news in the past ten years in relation to emerging (i.e. new) respiratory tract infections. The media have placed enormous attention on these: SARS, H5N1, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. None of these have turned out to cause as many deaths as ordinary seasonal flu. There is now a popular sentiment that these are ’scares’ – doctors in this scenario are either bumbling incompetents who place too much attention on a case of the sniffles, or shills for Big Pharma participating in a great vaccine scam. This is, of course, nonsense.

The reason that the WHO have been extremely cautious is because of the 1918 H1N1 pandemic. This killed somewhere on the order of 40 million people, most of them young adults. Modern experiments in mice using a virus reconstituted from preserved lung samples have shown that this strain was a completely novel form of flu transmitted wholesale from birds and that it is still deadly to this day. Its deadliness was previously thought to have been partly caused by malnutrition in WWI, but these experiments demonstrate that it was actually a particular combination of the 8 genes of H1N1-1918’s genome. If a similar cross-species transmission event were to reoccur, there is no reason to think it couldn’t be just as deadly.

Because their spread can be extremely quick, respiratory tract infections are the single most alarming infectious disease for health experts. SARS was frightening because it was a new virus about which little was known. This year’s H1N1 was initially unpredictable in behaviour, with a relatively high death rate in Mexico but low elsewhere. H5N1 initially spread by direct contact with birds and had an extremely high death rate – a worrying parallel with the initial outbreak of H1N1 in 1916 – which was followed by adaptation to humans and the 1918 pandemic. At the time of their initial appearance, these were all extremely worrying developments. That is why the WHO has always been cautious. A segment of the public’s perception, however, is that it is over-cautious.

Which leaves us with a difficult question – how can we reduce the ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect?

References – to be added

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Dec 21
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Mavericks. People showing great independence of thought*.

Some of the greatest discoveries in science have been made by mavericks. Nonsensical untruths have been promulgated by those very same mavericks. Mavericks stimulate the imagination – they lend themselves naturally as protagonists in a stimulating narrative, generating public interest. Heroes like Galileo and denialists like Duesberg all share one thing in common: going against the grain.

As a layperson in an unfamiliar field, how should a skeptical reader interpret the ideas of these controversial figures? I have been pondering on this problem because I recently attended a lecture by Daniel Everett, perhaps the most controversial linguist in the world. Then I read his book. I even attempted to read some of his original peer-reviewed literature and academic criticism of it, with less success.

My interest in Dr. Everett was originally piqued by this New Yorker article, which I recommend as a good lay summary.

Dr Everett started as a missionary with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, attempting to convert an Amazion tribe called the Pirahã to Christianity by translating the New Testament into their language. After many years, he succeeded in translating one of the gospels, only to find that they weren’t interested. The experience resulted in his loss of faith, and eventually, the breakup of his family. Along the way, however, he became a well-known academic linguist and came to appreciate the culture of the Pirahã people for what it was.

He claims that Pirahã is an exceptional language and culture. The cluster of features he describes certainly seem remarkable to foreign ears: no numbers, no colours, no left/right/up/down, no recursion. The ability to communicate purely through musicality – whistling, humming or yelling, all without consonants (even when used, the consonants vary). Only 12 phonemes (distinct sounds). A cultural constraint against discussing things which one has not observed directly or heard from someone who observed it directly (Dr Everett’s so-called ‘immediacy of experience principle’). Seeing invisible spirits without consuming hallucinogenics.

Dan Everett

Some of the linguistic claims fly in the face of Noam Chomsky’s ideas, particularly the lack of recursion. Dr Chomsky is a linguist and philosopher who founded a school of thought that underlies much of modern theoretical linguistics.

Much of the problem with interpreting Dr Everett’s work as an outsider is that he is perhaps the only linguist who speaks the language with a high degree of fluency (other than his ex-wife Keren Everett). While some of the work that he has done can be repeated independently (for example, on phonology, the study of the sounds of the language), much of the work that he has done is harder for non-speakers to confidently repeat. He responds to his critics, and they might find it hard to then counter-riposte, simply through a lack of data available to them and knack for understanding the language in context.

Whatever one makes of Dr. Everett’s claims, he certainly makes interesting point about the scientific approach in linguistics. There is a surprising dearth of study of some of the most diverse ecosystems of language – in the Amazon, Papua, and Australia (perhaps not coincidentally, also areas of great biodiversity). The least-studied languages are in fact to be found there – and are probably the most interesting. This means that there could be a sampling bias the size of Mount Etna in our present data on languages. It is as if zoologists hoped to study frogs without going to the Amazon, or geneticists ignoring organisms in the sea.

So what was the result of my attempt to understand a controversial expert in a field I have an amateur interest in? Well – I have to admit, I will have to keep to the humble limits of my knowledge and say that I haven’t the faintest idea whether any of Dr Everett’s claims are sensible.
Sources

1. Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. Daniel Everett. Profile Books. ISBN-13: 978-1846680403.

2. The Interpreter – Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language? John Colapinto, New Yorker, April 16 2007.

3. Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã. Everett. Current Anthropology 46(4) August–October 2005

4. Pirahã Exceptionality: a Reassessment. Nevins, Pesestky & Rodrigues. Language 85(2) June 2009. DOI: 10.1353/lan.0.0107

*thought to come from the 19th century Texas Politician Samuel Maverick

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Nov 05
Posted by: colinhockings  

Enter Academician

Academician: Welcome, one and all, to the 123rd meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle. Hat tip to one of the most important men ever to stand up and say ‘Er…hang on’ for tonight’s theme: Galileo Galilei. He wrote his thesis on the shape of the solar system in the form of a dialogue between two philosophers and a layman, and my script on the musings of my fellow bloggers will follow the same format. I’ve managed to persuade my friend Simplicio to join us – unfortunately my other friend, the layman, is taking a holiday to enjoy the beautifully redesigned Lay Scientist website so it’ll just be the two of us. As many skeptics are keen debaters wielding high quality arguments, I must inform you up front that Simplicio lists ‘Straw Man’ as his only hobby on Facebook.

Enter Simplicio

Simplicio: Ladies and Gentlemen! Hello. At least, I assume that you’re ladies (points to women in the crowd) and gentlemen (points to men). I mean…I don’t need to see any evidence, right? Am I right?

Academician: Well, yes, in this case you can probably believe the evidence of your own eyes to decide whether they’re male or female. However there are many cases where ‘common sense’ intuition is entirely wrong, as shown by Andrew Bernadin of The Evolving Mind. You should always be aware that your mind may lead you astray.

Simplicio: Your mind might. I’m perfectly sane and don’t need to worry about that sort of thing.

Academician: Well you may need to consult The Evolving Mind again, as Andrew describes three fascinating experiments where the silliest of things affect the decisions people make. Everyone who claims to know anything has to be aware of his or her natural ignorance.

Simplicio: But people keep talking about how to make a “good” argument with “sound evidence” and it’s all really boring!

Academician: Are you sure? You haven’t taken a look at Anthropologist Underground’s guide to solid argumentation. It’s set to the tune of ‘How To Avoid Your Children Dying On A Mountainside’. A novel take, to say the least!’

Simplicio: I don’t agree with novel takes. I learnt everything I know as a child and that’s how I like it!

Academician: I’m afraid you may be onto something there. Luckily Kylie Sturgess at PodBlack Cat has a very interesting discussion about the value of science fiction as a teaching tool in the science classroom.

Simplicio: Good idea, but not good enough. I prefer when people just simplify things for me, preferably without recourse to evidence.

Academician: Skeptics can do that too, when they feel like being snarky. Runolfr will gladly tell you of the story of the Tin-Foil-Hat wearers and their mortal enemies, the lead-lined-baseball cappers. I think he’s making a very pointed jab at something, but I’m not sure what…

Simplicio: Hehe that’s funny! I’ve got a parable like that too! There was once a little bird who died of herd immunity. The end

Academician: Um… that’s very sad, but I don’t think you quite understand what herd immunity is. Why don’t you ask Mike, he of the Weekly Skeptical Rant? He has an explanation involving bras and basketball!

Simplicio: Yea…that’s all a woman’s body is good for really: explaining concepts in epidemiology!

Academician: Well that sort of misogyny is running rife on the interwebs, especially in the anti-vaccination camp apparently. Amy Wallace had some unpleasant experiences with them following her Wired article, but as our local Goddess, Isis, will tell you, its fairly common. Not content with re-awakening nearly extinct diseases (see this post of gold at the end of the Rainbow of Chaos), the anti-vaxxers feel they have to be ‘colossal cockweaseldouchemonkeys’.

Simplicio: But the anti-vaxxers have a point! Pharma companies are simply ‘discovering’ new viruses so that they can force a new vaccine upon us!

Academician: Short answer: ‘er…you what!?!?! Um… NO!’. Long answer: ‘you’re thinking about the newly found (and, as far as I know, unconfirmed) correlation between XMRV infection and chronic fatigue syndrome? I’d ask Richard Hughes of Young Aus Skeptics‘.

Simplicio: But how about the Swine Flu vaccine? Swine Flu’s gone and they’re still trying to stab us with their evil needles of evil!

Academician: What do you mean Swine Flu’s gone? Tell that to Steve Thoms‘ students, half of whom are ill at the moment. Luckily for you there’s lots of good information about H1N1 on Skeptic North. They’ve even started a Facebook group that the entire audience (yes, that’s YOU!) should join to fight back against the reams of mis-information being spread elsewhere. Kimberly Hébert has a little bit of background information about the group and ‘Using Facebook Powers for Good’, which seems a very strange concept.

Simplicio: Sorry…didn’t quite catch that. What was it that I should do again?

Academician: Join the “H1N1 Vaccine – Get the Facts” Facebook group. NOW! Joining it is like getting the vaccine: you will help protect the people you love (or at least your “friends”) by promoting it in your news feed!

Simplicio: I’m sorry, I appear to going deaf. I think you’re going to have to repeat yourself in bold, underlined text to attract the attention of all the ’skimmers’.

Academician: Good idea! Join Skeptic North’s Swine Flu vaccine Facebook group NOW!

Simplicio: But there must be something to this vaccine-autism thing. Didn’t you hear that AutismOne is having their conference in the Medical Sciences building at the University of Toronto, being funded by reputable medical charities?

Academican: Well that’s not entirely the story I heard, but you’d have to head over to Skeptic North again to read Scott Gavura’s excellent post. So excellent, in fact, that Scott had to follow up with a few comments on the media coverage it’s received on his own blog, Science Based Pharmacy.

Simplicio: I think it’s all a pro-vaccine conspiracy. These scientists are waging a war against our freedom to believe what we like about our bodies, and they’re also targeting good Christian values!

Academician: What on earth are you talking about?

Simplicio: The HPV vaccine! The prospect of an increased risk of cervical cancer is the only thing stopping young people from having orgies in the streets! Take that away and our moral fibre will melt like a witch on water-throwing day!

Academician: Ah yes, SkeptVet did mention something about that: the strange union of the conservative Christians and New-Age hippies on this issue. There is also an evidence-based discussion of the further correlation between being a CAM proponent and being religious.

Simplicio: Why are you smirking?

Academician: Well it seems that as soon as you put your faith in faith, rather than evidence, you open the door for all sorts of silliness. Take prayer-healing, for example! Luckily Melany Fulgham, again of Skeptic North, was willing to demonstrate the use of the Skeptic’s Toolkit® to dismantle some recent claims. Over at Scientifica Phenomena, Carver has a nice, succinct essay explaining why creationism (or creation science, or ID, or whatever new packaging it’s acquired today) is not, and will never be, science.

Carver has also written a somewhat revealing post showing that some CAM-pushing quacks are not content to simply lie to you about efficacy in the hope of making some money, but will actively try to scam you.

Simplicio: Back up a bit there! Of course creation science is science! It says so in the name!

Academician: No I’m afraid you need to follow the scientific method to be a scientist. If you have a conclusion and are cherry picking evidence to support it, that’s not science. Just as cryptozoologists (people who search for mythical creatures but want a better job title than ‘fool’) can’t claim the recent discovery of the Bald-Faced Bubul in Laos as their own – ask the Mad Skeptic for more. The Mad Skeptic also has two cents worth to share about #No God Tuesday, an event that will go down in history as the day of the theological Fail Whale. I definitely recommend a read because a) it’s funny, and b) it further weakens the idea that believing in God makes you a nice person.

Simplicio: Well are scientists necessarily good, upstanding people?

Academician: Yes! Well, actually, no, of course not. One example is Dr. David Suzuki (a very famous scientist in Canada, by the looks of things) who is apparently giving the keynote at the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors’ annual conference according to Naturocrit. And that with all of his 23 Doctorates!

(turns to audience)

Ladies and Gentlemen! We’re nearing the end of the scene. All that is remains is the review section. This is also known as the ‘These Noble Men and Women Took One For the Team by Reading a Pile of Absolute Tripe So That We Don’t Have To’ section. Simplicio, if you would be so kind as to read out these cue cards..? (hand over a small stack of cards)

Simplicio: Homeopathy!

Academician: Some of you will have seen the beginning of a video on YouTube last week where a homeopath stands up and ‘explains’ how homeopathy works. I say ‘beginning’ because I personally couldn’t make us much further than “Steven Hawkings invented string theory”. Luckily no-one ever needs to see it again since IBY had a go at deconstructing it!

Simplicio: Anti-Evolutionists!

Academician: Bing McGandhi of Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes reviews a review of Richard Dawkins’ new book. I know, very meta, but that’s just how McGandhi rolls! If the anti-evolutionists are confusing you with their crazy, this is a good source of arguments.

Simplicio: Anti-Vaccinationists!

Academician: Halvorsan’s book ‘The Truth About Vaccines” is, of course, anything but. James Cole of Stuff and Nonsense (previously jdc325 of jdc325’s Blog) is seriously taking one for the team, analysing it chapter by chapter. For this service to humanity please visit his blog and shower him with comments, money and underwear. Any acquaintances that turn up on your doorstep clutching Halvorsan’s book should be similarly referred. (P.S. James, in retrospect, I disapprove of the name change. The stark contrast between the really bad name and the excellent content made the blog very memorable)

Simplicio: Realism!

Academician: What? Oh, yes! A review of ‘The Last Superstition’ by Dr. Edward Feser on Life, The Universe and One Brow morphs quickly into a treatise on realism that goes way above my head. I recommend any philosophers to take a peek. Maybe you can review the review for us in the comments?

Simplicio: 9/11 ‘Truthers’

Academician: Richard Hughes says ‘Farewell‘, he’ll be sorely missed I’m sure. Don’t worry, he’s not stopped blogging or anything. He’s finally quitting the fight with 9/11 truthers with this memorable quote: “it seemed as though in continuing to debate, we were doing little more than attaching jumper cables to a dead horse as an excuse to beat it some more”. The post is a very interesting account of his time battling the movement, something that I, as a European, hadn’t head much about.’

That, I’m afraid, brings us to the end of yet another Skeptics’ Circle. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show, you’ve been a wonderful audience, and I hope to see you here again soon!

exeunt

Before you leave, I hope you’ll consider buying season tickets to this theatre. They can be purchased at this ticket booth and remember that you can speak to the actors after the show on @BlueGenesNews!

H1N1 Vaccine – Get the Facts

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Oct 23
Posted by: colinhockings  

The end of October is upon us, with the imminent approach of demons stalking the night and magical changing clocks. Fear not, however, because this year we’ve got something special to brighten up your autumn. The fifth of November will be a day to remember, not just for bonfire enthusiasts in Britain: your very own Blue-Genes.net will be hosting the 123rd Skeptics’ Circle!

There a few guidelines for what posts fall within the scope of the Skeptics’ Circle, which can be found here along with other information about the carnival, but they’re fairly common sense.  Any post where skepticism and logic are applied is welcome, as long as it’s not too political. We’re trying to create an atmosphere of reason here. Check out the latest installment at Young Australian Skeptics for some idea of what we’re looking for..

As regular readers will know, every Skeptics’ Circle seems to have a clever theme. I will consult with the Blue-Genes team, but any suggestions will be more than welcome.

Please send your posts, along with a brief description, to me at colin *at* blue-genes *dot* net, preferably before Tuesday 3rd November.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Oct 21
Posted by: benvincent  

Today saw the release of the paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine containing the hotly awaited data concerning the HIV vaccine trial that took place in Thailand. There was already some discussion of the initial results, which were reported in September and discussed by Colin, amongst others. As has already been discussed, there is a very cautious consensus due to the statistical analysis of the trial only *just* falling on the side of significant. Also there were the issues that the efficacy (capacity to provoke an effect, in this case protection from HIV infection) was only calculated as 31.2% overall, and the non-intuitive fact that each of the two components of this vaccine – ALVAC (which contains a modified canarypox virus) and AIDSVAX – have been shown to offer no significant protection when administered alone.

Commentary on the full report is already being written of course (by people paid to do it, unlike me…) with the interesting points that vaccine efficacy may not only fall after the first year following inoculation but also seems to have a higher efficacy in trial members who are in low risk groups.  The point is an obvious one – a whole bucket more questions have been raised by this trial than have been answered. Even if we cautiously accept the significance of the findings and that the vaccine’s efficacy is real, we have sod all idea why or how.

But, as disheartening as this may sound, particularly to those people who have watched every other HIV vaccine project attempted over the years fail, this is certainly a positive finding. The reason for this is that in terms of how science is done and applied, the methodology doesn’t exist in a bubble. When important things like vaccine work get noticed, they also get noticed by activists, journalists, politicians. Policy can be affected, along with public opinion which can have more affect on an academic enterprise than may be obvious.  Funding into HIV vaccine research has been dropping which obviously has not been helped by all round economic belt-tightening at the moment, so this study may provide a much needed boost to a previously bleak field. Awareness is also raised amongst those people who sign the cheques. The global vaccine market is big money whichever way you look at it, though obviously investing in 16,000 strong trials that span years with no product to show at the end of it makes a sad face for any investor who might think it purely profitable. Big cash source, big cash sink. This study is the first indication that work on an HIV vaccine might not just be the latter. Many HIV activists are likely to want to push this too, as the head of IAVI Seth Berkley says:

Years of investment and dogged science are providing leads for solving one of today’s most pressing research challenges. Some 7,400 new H.I.V. infections occur daily throughout the world. Clearly we need better methods of preventing the spread of H.I.V., and no public health intervention is more powerful or cost-effective against infectious disease than a vaccine.”

Though cautious optimism should be present for communicators and advocates this is definite justification that HIV vaccine research is not flushing cash down some impossible non-route. it is a long and tricky path…but finally, a little evidence that it is a path. Paths have ends!

Further reading:

http://www.voanews.com/english/2009-10-20-voa35.cfm

http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/detailed-results-from-rv-144,1005065.shtml

http://www.voanews.com/english/Africa/2009-10-20-voa38.cfm

http://www.marketresearch.com/product/display.asp?productid=2284570

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Oct 15
Posted by: nicholasswetenham  

Blog Action Day 2009

What can conferences achieve? Why do we go to the great expense of holding them?

I have been to two conferences in two weekends, and they could not possibly have been more different.

TAM London 2009 was a meeting aimed at humanists, skeptics, scientists and atheists. There were many notable, highly entertaining speakers – from the cause célèbre Simon Singh to comedians like Tim Minchin. For the privilege of seeing all of these speakers in one go, guests paid up to £200, with discounts of only £10 for students or members. It was incredibly entertaining and perhaps gave some sense of community to people who do not otherwise bond based on their beliefs. However, from what I could see it ultimately served as a fundraiser for the James Randi Education Foundation, a non-profit which seeks to educate the public about pseudo-science. With this money, it will pursue its aims

Power Shift 2009 (London), on the other hand, was a conference organised by the UK Youth Coalition on Climate Change. It cost about £20 to attend. There were talks held throughout the weekend – but usually aimed at young people with short attention spans, lasting no longer than 15 minutes, and aiming to inspire or lead by example. Over the course of the weekend, participant learned campaigning skills based on public narrative, and bonded in gradually larger groups through the use of story-telling. It was very 2.0 – training plus inspirational examples plus social networking, all in one weekend. It culminated in a day of action this Monday, with flash-mobs on the South Bank and in Parliament Square – video here and Guardian coverage here. Not only did this generate a media-friendly campaign action that generated decent press coverage, the shared experiences of the weekend can be built for future action. In my mind, this is a far more effective and lasting way to use a weekend of like-minded people coming together.

So to those of you organising conferences, take heed: tapping into the networking aspect of conferences, usually reserved for corridors and coffee-breaks, can lead to an entirely different experience for attendees and a lasting effect.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis
Oct 07
Posted by: colinhockings  

Telomere Caps

Most denizens of the interwebs (at least of this corner of the interwebs) will have heard the announcement that the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine will be given to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work on telomeres – the structures found at the ends of human chromosomes. You may already have read a little about the research behind it (if not, the NobelPrize.org press release is a very good place to start) so I’ll try to keep the background as short as possible. What I would like to do here is to explain the assertions that “cancer research has also benefited from the Nobel-winning trio’s work”.

Telomeres are necessary for several reasons, among them to act as ‘padding’ during cell duplication. Every time a linear DNA molecule is replicated it loses a few base pairs from the ends (the reason why is quite interesting, see this description of the end replication problem). The telomeric sequence is simply “TTAGGG” (in vertebrates) repeated several thousand times so it doesn’t matter when some sequence is deleted. But, I hear you cry, how is this important for cancer?

Most cells in the body do not replicate. A typical tissue, such as skin, has a thin layer of stem cells that divide to produce more stem cells, as well as cells that will differentiate into skin cells. These cells divide a few more times until they are ‘terminally differentiated’. In the case of skin that means that they are filled with keratin and die, and when they reach the surface they are sloughed off. In other tissues the non-replicating terminally differentiated cells have different functions, for example as nerve cells or muscle cells. Thus the only cells that need to replicate infinitely are stem cells (and germ line cells, the cells that become sperm and eggs), so they express a protein called telomerase which adds extra copies of the repetitive sequences to the ends of chromosomes.

Those of you who’ve read my first ‘Understanding Cancer’ post – and anyone who knows a little bit about cancer biology – will see why this system is a major inhibitor of carcinogenesis: when a cell starts to over-proliferate it can only divide a certain number of times before the telomeres are fully eroded. In order to continue dividing it has to accumulate further mutations that render it immortal. These mutations have to be very specific, making them rarer: there are thousands of ways to make a cell grow faster, but only very few ways to lengthen its telomeres. Around 90% of cancers (remember: a cancer is, by definition, a collection of cells that have jumped this hurdle) have mutations that cause them to produce telomerase. Most of the remaining cases of cancer have recruited a normal DNA repair mechanism to lengthen the chromosomes by a process called ALT (Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres).

On a short side note: when telomeres were first elucidated it was thought by some that we’d found the key to aging. Unfortunately upregulating telomerase in an attempt to stay young only leads to more cancer, because you’ve removed one of the hurdles that a nascent tumour has to surmount.

Does anyone see the further significance here? All cancers have to overcome a certain problem, and most of them do it in exactly the same way. This makes telomerase a very attractive target for new chemotherapeutic drugs or other types of intervention, and the field is bustling with new ideas. A few clinical trials are showing progress, using gene therapy and small molecule inhibitors (a.k.a. drugs): for a fuller account read this nice open-access review. The approach that strikes me as the most fascinating – and promising – is the idea of vaccinating against telomerase. Almost all cells in the body constantly chew up a sample of their own proteins and display them to the cells of the immune system as a defence against viruses. If you can tell the immune system to attack cells that express telomerase (not quite as straightforward as one might think) it will specifically attack cancer cells. This should be more specific (read: cause less side effects) than most anti-cancer therapies because most drugs attack all rapidly-replicating cells, whereas this would only target immortal cells, and just like you may have learnt from comic books: immortality is a very rare privilege.

ResearchBlogging.orgShay, J., & Keith, W. (2008). Targeting telomerase for cancer therapeutics British Journal of Cancer, 98 (4), 677-683 DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6604209

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • TwitThis