Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dark Matter for Dummies

A couple of details here in a video about dark matter that I didn't know, phdcomics style.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Green Party is Confused

Larry over at Sandwalk has a post up about the "Anti-science Green Party", pointing out some unscientific tendencies and focusing on their promotion of homeopathy and naturopathy.

Unsurprisingly, the Green Party also as a strong opinion on the subject of genetically-modified (GMO) crops. Back in February, they released a statement calling for independent health testing of GMO crops and more peer-reviewed research on the subject, as well as more research to develop high-yield non-GMO seed for farmers. While, to my knowledge, there are no documented safety issues surrounding GMO food, it's not an unreasonable position. With an election looming, it's interesting to see how they plan to follow up on this position. From their proposed budget
Cut all federal biotech funding to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Natural Resources Canada and 10% of funding (amount going to GMO biotech) from NSERC and NRC.
So the way to get better research and products (including their desired high-yield non-GMO seed) out there is to cut science funding? The Green Party seems confused about how to get what they want - assuming they mean it when they say they want independent GMO research and better non-GMO technology.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Basic Research is "Waste"

Newsflash: academic researchers don't patent as much as IBM. In a letter to Nature entitled "Scientists Should Cut Waste Too", Matthew Kumar calls on scientists to do their part in helping reduce the $1.3 trillion US budget deficit by reducing waste and inefficiency and working within their means (in this case, reduced federal funding). Of course on the surface, this doesn't sound too bad. Certainly everybody should be working to reduce waste and inefficiency. The problem is what Kumar views as "waste":
Unlike companies, non-profit academic institutions deliver a paltry return on taxpayers' investments. In 2010, after spending nearly $3.1 billion of taxpayers' money on intramural research, the NIH received $91.6 million in royalties and was issued with 134 patents. By contrast, in 2009 IBM spent $6.5 billion on research and development, generated $15.1 billion in revenue and was issued with 4,914 patents.
There's a lot to pick at here. First of all, NIH funded research versus IBM R&D? We could at least try to compare health research with health research if we want to attempt a fair comparison. Of course picking a pharmaceutical company might undermine the point. And nevermind the fact that patent production isn't necessarily the metric a non-profit academic institution would use as a measure of productivity. Or the fact that academic institutions also have other functions, like teaching the next wave of uber-productive, patent-producing scientists at for-profit companies (and the "wasteful" ones that stay in academia. But the worst part is the implication that basic research is a waste - that if you're not generating revenue or patents, it's not worth it. In my mind, Carl Sagan said it best (click the link for the full passage):
Cutting off fundamental, curiosity-driven science is like eating the seed corn. We may have a little more to eat next winter, but what will we plant so we and our children will have enough to get through the winters to come?
I wonder how productive these model companies would be without that wasteful basic research to build on.


Friday, April 08, 2011

Apply the Leeches!

Sifting through a pile of abstracts, I came across this 2010 case report of a man managing his cancer pain through application of leeches.
The patient was lost to follow-up and then showed up 2 months later at a visit in good condition. The patient’s pain was greatly improved, and he was using paracetamol 500 mg occasionally for mild discomfort. The patient informed us that he has applied seven leeches to the lumber region for 2 days a month: four leeches at the first day and three leeches at the second day. His neighbor had advised him on the use of leeches for pain treatment, and the leeches were applied by his son. He has bought the leeches from a pet market.
Now that's a home remedy. The authors point out that leeches can be (and are) used for a variety of other indications. The report also includes this description:
Leeches have got suckers at the front and rear of their body. At the front, the animal has three jaws each and a jaw contains 100 teeth. Leeches can suck nearly 5–15 mL
of blood at one attachment; if the leech’s intestinal tract is opened with a small incision, the sucking capacity can be increased. Leeches are armed with a range of pharmacologically active ingredients
It seems the reason for pain relief is still unclear - it could be one of the "range of pharmacologically active ingredients or, as the authors point out, it could be placebo effect based on strong expectations of the patient. Anybody up for a clinical trial?


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Cheaper Vaccines

From Dr. Jean-Simon Diallo,

Hello / Bonjour,

In an effort to develop a novel method to make vaccine production more affordable for developing countries, I have recently submitted a video application for the 2011 Grand Challenges Canada : Rising Stars in Global Health competition with the help of my colleague Dr. Fabrice Le Boeuf (the camera-man). How can you help you ask? Well, quite simply, follow the link below and vote for me by clicking on the "thumbs up"! If you are actually interested in knowing more about what I am proposing to do with the grant money and want to see an oscar-worthy acting performance, by all means watch the 2-minute video as well!

Thanks in advance for your help and interest (and also for spreading the word so others will also vote!),

Jean-Simon Diallo - actor, director...scientist ;)

Pour les francophones maintenant,

Comme je disais an anglais, je tente de développer une nouvelle methode pour produire des vaccins plus abordables pour les pays en voie de devloppement. Pour ce faire, j'ai produit avec l'aide de mon collègue Dr. Fabrice Le Boeuf (le caméra-man), un vidéo pour participer à la compétition Grands Défis Canada : Étoiles Montantes Canadiennes en santé. Comment pouvez-vous m'aider vous dites? C'est simple, suivez le lien ci-haut et cliquez sur l'icône montant un poing fermé avec le pousse pointant vers le haut pour voter pour mon vidéo! Si vous vous intéressez à ce que j'ai à proposer pour ce projet et que vous voulez voir une performance digne d'un oscar, je vous invite à regarder le vidéo qui dure à peu près 2 minutes!

Merci pour votre aide et de votre intérêt (et n'hésitez pas à répandre le message pour en faire votr d'autres aussi!),

Jean-Simon Diallo - acteur, réalisateur,...scientifique ;)


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Information is Beautiful: Snake-oil or Supplement?

On Facebook, Highlight HEALTH points to this interesting data visualization. It's an interactive chart of health supplements and the evidence supporting their effectiveness for a given condition (e.g. green tea for cholesterol reduction). The higher the balloon "floats", the better the available evidence and the larger the balloon, the more popular (as measured in google hits) the intervention is. This is the statement on the evidence used to determine how high a balloon ranks.
We only considered large, human, randomized placebo-controlled trials in our data scrape – wherever possible. No animal trials. No cell studies. Many of the health claims made by the $23 billion supplements industry are based on non-human trials. We wanted to cut through that.

This piece was doggedly researched by myself, and researchers Pearl Doughty-White and Alexia Wdowski. We looked at the abstracts of over 1500 studies on PubMed (run by US National Library Of Medicine) and (which hosts meta-studies of scientific research). It took us several months to seek out the evidence – or lack of.

You can see our key results in this spreadsheet. (It’s the same spreadsheet that generates the interactive image).
There's also a "worth it line" but no telling what that line actually means. It's a pretty cool way to visualize the data (personally I might have had the bubble size correspond to evidence rather than google hits since my eye is drawn more to that than the vertical scale). However, it suffers from the same problems as any attempt to simplify information... it's simple. Clicking on a bubble will take you to a single abstract supporting or refuting the particular supplement. Presumably more than one study is involved in each determination but nowhere, not even in the data used to make the chart (that is freely accessible on the site), is there an explanation of quantity or how quality was assessed. (Also, a nit-pick: while it says only randomized controlled trials (RCT) with placebo controls are considered, the first bubble I clicked on [green tea for cholesterol] took me to a non-RCT).

Complaints aside, it's a nice visualization, if limited. Clearly the designers aren't setting out to do formal systematic reviews for each indication, and by no means is it intended to be a final word resource for these things, but is more useful as an interesting starting point to think about these supplements. More importantly, it encourages thinking about what evidence exists, and highlights the fact that many of these things can and are tested - as any health intervention should be.


Monday, April 04, 2011

I Don't Negotiate with Terrorists

Who said this?:
We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, [they] need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.
This sounds clearly like the manifesto of a terrorist organization, but if you think it's some overseas religious extremist you're wrong. The group in question is called Negotiation is Over (given the current stance, I doubt they ever considered negotiation), an animal rights group, and the quote above comes from point two of their three-point plan to target the "soft underbelly" of animal research: students. The full quote:
2. Students also need to understand that making the wrong choice will result in a lifetime of grief. Aspiring scientists envision curing cancer at the Mayo Clinic. We need to impart a new vision: car bombs, 24/7 security cameras, embarrassing home demonstrations, threats, injuries, and fear. And, of course, these students need to realize that any personal risk they are willing to assume will also be visited upon their parents, children, and nearest & dearest loved ones. The time to reconsider is now.
(Point three proposes invasion of privacy and smear campaigns against students). They even brag about intimidating one particular undergraduate student at an American university into denouncing her fruit fly research. It's disgusting, and has obviously been met with condemnation by the science community. Some posts on the matter:

On the targeting of undergraduates by animal rights extremists (and the dangers of victim-blaming). at Adventures in Ethics and Science

The animal rights radicals may have overreached this time at Respectful Insolence

Animal Rights Terrorists Are Coming After Your Students... at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess

Students are “soft-bellied targets” and NIO is doomed now at Pharyngula


Friday, April 01, 2011

Cancer Carnival #44

Welcome to the 44th edition of the Cancer Research Blog Carnival. It's a short one this month. The Carnival relies on posts and hosts, the more submissions the more content, so be sure to submit your posts for next month or drop us a line to sign up as a future host.

Walter at HighlightHEALTH has a post up about genetic signatures that distinguish cancer patients from non-cancer patients.
A unique, reproducible and statistically significant motif of 18 pattern-specific microsatellite families was identified in germline and tumor DNA from breast cancer patients but not in germline DNA of cancer-free patients or in breast cancer patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations.
The post includes more in-depth description of the work and a video with the institute director discussing the results.

At Health and Life, David writes about the arthritis drug leflunomide for skin cancer.
Scientists conducted tests on the drug leflunomide and discovered it drastically reduced tumour growth in mice too. Combined with another experimental melanoma drug called PLX4720, they were amazed to find the two compounds almost stopped cancer growth completely.
A brief overview of melanoma and skin cancer rates is also included.

Over at 80beats, there's a piece about a new device capable of detecting even a single circulating cancerous cell.
Scientists have developed a new carbon nanotube device (pictured above) that’s capable of detecting single cancer cells. Once implemented in hospitals, this microfluidic device could let doctors more efficiently detect the spread of cancer, especially in developing countries that don’t have the money for more sophisticated diagnostic equipment.
Finally, Reportergene sends us a quickie about trends in biomarker mice, including liver cancer self-reporting mice that can spotlight cancer development before lesions are evident.

That's it for this month's Cancer Research Blog Carnival. For older editions, visit the Carnival Homepage. Don't forget, the CRBC has subscription options; you can follow by email or RSS feed. An aggregated feed of credible, rotating health and medicine blog carnivals is also available. For a broader collection of science-related blog carnivals, sign up for the Science, Medicine, Environment and Nature Blog Carnival Twitter Feed.


April Fool's Day

Lots of good pranks, hoaxes, and jokes around the net this morning in honour of April Fool's Day but I think this one from ThinkGeek takes the cake, poking fun at the recent claims about arsenic-based life:
Artemia monica is the fancypants name for Sea Monkeys (specifically, those found in Mono Lake, California). And what's even cooler, by eating the GFAJ-1, the Sea Monkeys have also gained the ability to substitute arsenic for phosphorus. Promptly removing this new breed of Sea Monkey's eggs from the water instantly puts them into cryptobiosis (another fancypants word meaning, "suspended animation.") Because of this cryptobiosis and the fact that Sea Monkeys breed at an alarming rate, we have tons of eggs which we can now offer to all of you. That's right, you can get your very own Arsenic-Based Sea Monkeys today!