Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Quack of the week: Rupert Sheldrake

I was recently listening to Rupert Sheldrake on the "how to think about science" series of podcast. While he makes some interesting points about the state of science, and what it means to be on the fringe of science, I couldn't help to think his ideas were too improbable to seriously consider. In fact I won't bother enumerating all of them but you can check them out yourself. In any case he differs from other quacks we've talked about because he's not trying to take advantage of anyone, he just wants his ideas to be tested, and people to respect his science, no matter how improbable it is. One of those ideas is that there are invisible fields (think electro-magnetic) which connect everything in the world, so that when one makes an observation, the knowledge gained travels to every related entity. For example he says that the first time a certain chemical is crystallized, it then decides for every subsequent event how other crystals will form, and the process will also be faster as if crystals were learning. This hypothesis in his opinion is superior to the one chemist already hold, which is that tiny crystals get carried in beards and clothes and hair of traveling chemist which somehow manage to make their way into other people's experiments and gives rise to a "diminishing polymorph". In biological terms this could be compared to a prion: it is a replicating entity which converts a population of related chemical found in various forms, into a single crystalline form. I found this latter idea actually quite interesting and far more likely than ones which needs to conjure up new physics. Is there any evidence for the "crystal beard hypothesis"? Well it turns out that yes there is, and it is fascinating.

The first example is rintonavir, an anti-viral manufactured by Abbott. It turns out that a particular conformation of the drug spontaneously formed in 1998 in their American manufacturing plant. This Form-2 was less effective as a drug, and it was able to catalyze the conversion of the old drug into this new form. The contaminated plant, despite efforts to clean it up was never able to produce form-1 ever again and had to be shut down. Meanwhile the Italian plant picked up the slack, until an American scientist came to visit, and seemingly introduced the rogue drug, probably through his clothing, and wrecked the whole operation there too.

The second example comes from Canada, and lead to some patent litigation. It turns out that paxil, can occur in two variants also. The second variant was useful because it enabled the company which had ownership of the drug to extend patent life. Now comes in Apotex, a Canadian generic manufacturer, which makes the first form of paxil, which is equally effective and now off-patent. Well it turns out that crystals contaminated their plants too and started converting their paxil into the new variant. This of course meant that they were making a drug which was owned by somebody else and prevented them from making the old patent-free version. I'm sure the pharmaceutical industry loved that one.

It makes one wonder about the dangers of self-replicating products of synthetic biology...


Bayman said...

Is he suggesting this as an explanation for quantum entanglement? ie "Spooky action at a distance."?