Archive for category Evidence based wafflings

The Schiensh of Bond: The World is Not Enough

I just saw the new Skyfall trailer, and now I am so blummin excited! But until then, there is BlogalongaBond. In this month’s BlogalongaBond I look at some of the less believable bits of The World is Not Enough, no, not Denise Richards being an Atomic Scientist (or a nuclear physicist, or something) Only slight less credible – The bullet going through Renard’s brain making him superhuman – in TWINE: all this cackwaffle is in your head.

Twenty-six minutes into the film we make the acquaintance of the film’s antagonist – the anarchist Viktor Zorkas AKA Renard. The hot doctor with a moronic name gives us the, ha, medical history. 009 put a bullet in his brain:

…It’s moving through the medulla oblongata killing off his senses: touch, smell; he feels no pain, he can push himself harder and longer than any normal man. The bullet will kill him, but he’ll grow stronger every day until the day he dies.

Dr Molly Warmflash

Firstly, how on earth did a bullet get into Renard’s brain, then get stuck in a way that means it’s slowly travelling through the brain? The bullet presumably got deflected which slowed it down. Also, the bullet has, presumably avoided all major blood vessels. Had any blood vessels been ruptured by the wayward bullet, the resulting haemorrhage or haematoma (small blood clot) would severely impair the oxygen supply to the brain (oxygen supply to brain v.v. important – death occurs in minutes if it is disrupted). Another problem would be swelling of the brain as the damaged parts of the brain start to become inflamed and swell up. The brain has the consistency of set yoghurt or blancmange, so it’s very easy to damage. Swelling of the brain would lead to structures on the outer surface pressing on the inside of the skull getting damaged.

Although it is highly unlikely that the bullet would still be going through Renard’s brain with the same trajectory with which it entered, the migration of a bullet inside the brain following a gunshot wound is not unheard of. Movement of a bullet is influenced by, amongst other things, gravity and the weird pulsing movements of the brain itself. Even given the above, a remarkable number of people survive brain injuries. As it travels through the brain, the bullet will compress tissue, damaging it. This damage also spreads to surrounding tissue, so the injury is not just limited to the brain displaced by the bullet.

I pulled the following list of complications from a paper assessing complications following brain injury

Out of 442 patients

Infection (Local or systemic) 27 (6.1%)
CSF fistula 20 (4.5%)
Hydrocephalus 9 (2%)
Intracranial hematoma 16 (3.6%)
Wound healing problems 8 (1.8%)
Drug reactions 52 (11.7%)
Total (patients with complications) 132 (29.8%)

I coughed my way derisively through Warmflash’s description of Renard’s condition because clearly the good doctor knows nothing about the anatomy of the brain.First off, the bullet is not travelling through the medulla oblongata. The medulla oblongata (often referred to simply as the medulla) is the lower part of the brainstem, it joins the brain to the spinal cord. It is also one of the most crucial parts of the brain as it houses the cardiovascular and respiratory centres. This makes it vital in maintaining blood flow and blood pressure. More importantly, it controls breathing – without the medulla sending messages to the lungs, you would stop breathing.

The following caveat applies to what is written below – I have failed two neuroanatomy exams. But, armed with Jurgan K Mai’s Atlas of the Human Brain and the MRI section of the Allen Brain Atlas, I aim to stomp this into teeny weeny waffly pieces.

I have attempted to extrapolate the route of the bullet through Renard’s brain using screen caps of the film and the Allen Brain Atlas. This has been rather tricky as the trajectory of the bullet is in three dimensions. However:

The bullet enters the skull via the frontal bone. The first part of the brain affected would be the medial orbital gyrus or the obitofrontal gyrus. The orbitofrontal gyrus is part of the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain involved in reasoning and decision making, but are also considered to be involved in reward and reinforcement pathways. So presumably, Renard’s decision making abilities would be impaired. But then, he is an anarchist, so maybe no one noticed. Altered structure of orbitofrontal regions have been identified in numerous psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, mood disorders and drug addiction.

Once past the frontal lobe, the bullet passes through white matter – these are the cables that join the bits of the brain together. From here, the bullet passes through the putamen and globus palladus – both structures of the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia plays an important role in the regulation of movement. The basal ganglia is the part of the brain that is impaired in patients with Parkinson’s disease, this is seen primarily as a difficulty in initiating movement. Close to the globus pallidus is the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens appears to also have a role in reward pathways, decisions and emotions.

By my guess, the hippocampus would also be trashed by the bullet. The hippocampus is thepart of the brain that is involved in consolidating short term memories into long term once. One of the best studied cases of this is Henry Molaison who had the hippocampi removed from both sides of his brain. He was studied for years; the key findings were that he was unable to form new memories like that guy from Memento. But he was able to learn new motor skills. The inability to learn anything new is not a particularly useful skill in a super villain.

Until this point, all the damage done by the bullet is on the right side of his brain. As a general rule, the right side of the brain controls muscles and receives touch input from the left side of the body and the left side of the brain controls and receives input from the right side of the body. In a right-handed person, the left side of the brain is often the side of the brain that deals with speech and language, whereas the right side of the brain is more important in things like spatial reasoning and utilises non-verbal cognitive processes (it’s a little hazy when you consider left-handers). It is the woolly intuitive brain, whereas the left side is the subjective, analytical brain. Given Robert Carlyle is right handed, I’m going to assume Renard’s ability to deal with people’s emotions and seeing the big picture are impaired – hence why he needs Electra’s guidance as a supervillain.

So far in TWINE the bullet has only made it as far as the pons. The pons is the uppermost part of the brainstem, all the neurons that carry information to and from the brain to the spinal cord travel in here, so damage can have catastrophic consequences. By this point, the bullet has reached the midline, so it is probably affecting both sides of the body. It also houses important structure that are involved in hearing, balance and taste, in addition to the nerves involved in sensing touch and controlling movement of the face. Crucially, the pons contains the reticular formation – a structure vital to maintaining consciousness – if this is damaged, it will lead to a coma. If the bullet damages any of the nerves that control the arms or legs passing through the pons, Renard would be paralysed. So some of what Dr Warmflash is accurate – if only by accident. He should lose his senses only towards the end as the bullet enters the pons. There seems to be little evidence that Renard will lose the ability to feel pain.

Warmflash’s assertion that Renard’s inability to feel pain mean that he has superhuman strength are somewhat simplistic. M and the doctor tell Bond that because Renard cannot feel pain he has extraordinary strength. This doesn’t make sense. Sustained or intense exercise is limited in humans by a number of factors; the first is muscle fatigue. The nerves that activate the muscle may reach a point where they are not able to fire fast enough, the muscle no longer contracts. There is no pain involvement, so Renard’s muscles will fatigue in the same way as anyone else’s. A second consequence of muscle overuse would be depletion of the stuff that powers the muscle like oxygen, glucose and calcium. In this case, the muscles simply fail to contract and there is no associated pain – thus, Renard’s inability to feel pain would not affect this. The third way in which exercise could affect muscles would be where it causes muscle damage and while this would cause pain, and Renard would be able to push through what would unbearable pain. However, pain is important for us in preventing or limiting us damaging our bodies. Renard’s injuries would likely go untreated and they would get worse. He would be prone to infections in the injured areas.

There are genetic conditions which result in people not being able to feel pain. Patients have, in general, normal touch sensation (except temperature). Rather than making people stronger, congenital pain insensitivity increases the risk of infection as wounds go unnoticed. Here is an interesting account of a girl unable to feel pain. Other problems associated with inability to feel pain include not being able to feel when there is damage to the eye. As a consequence, eye infections become common, and eyesight can be permanently impaired.

And now I’ve lost all my readers just in time for Die Another Day, which is just as well because the utter bollocks in that are going to drive me nuts.

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The Schiensh of Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies

As we scamper excitedly through the Brosnans, BlogalongaBond continues with Tomorrow Never Dies in a post subtitled You Sunk My Battleship.

We’re back to MacGuffins of the magic science variety. In Elliot Carver’s dastardly plan to TAKE OVER THE WORLD, he has acquired a GPS encoder. A magic sciencey thing. What does it do? Well according to the expired occupants of a British frigate or a Chinese fighter jet – it fucks with GPS so that the HMS Devonshire thinks it’s in international waters while it has actually drifted into Chinese waters. So how does it work? What is GPS?

Well, GPS stands for Global Positioning System. It makes it possible for me to wander around the streets of London holding out a map with a moving blue dot that says “you are here”.

Development of GPS

The rather wonderful description of its serendipitous invention can be found here at TED

Shortened version here:

Left to right – William Guier, Frank McClure and George Weiffenbach

A couple of nerds at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory called physicists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach wondered idly over lunch time if they could listen to the newly launched Russian satellite Sputnik. George happened to have a microwave receiver in his office. They start picking up Sputnik’s signal, making a note of the times and dates the signal appears. The two enthusiastic geeks notice variations in the frequency of the signal – a result of the Doppler effect. The Doppler effect is a well understood phenomenon – it’s why the sound of an ambulance siren gets higher pitched as it gets closer to you and gets deeper when it moves away – so it was possible for Guier and Weiffenbach to calculate Sputnik’s speed and location. With the help of a super computer, they plotted out Sputnik’s entire trajectory. When they published it, they scared the crap out of the Russians who didn’t believe the American’s had the computing power to work such a thing out.

Their boss at the APL, Frank McClure, came to Guier and Weiffenbach, “you’ve got the system to find an object in orbit from a known location, we’ve got these submarines with their missiles pointing at Moscow – can we find them if we stick up some satellites?”

Ivan Getting, Bradford Parkinson and Roger L Easton were credited for developing GPS for the US Navy in 1960 and it was made available for civilian use in 1989. And now I can open up google maps and can tell you where I am. If I stick my phone out of the window.  GPS requires line of sight from satellites (which is why you have to put your satnav in your windscreen rather than in the middle of your car). Guier’s account is over here.

How does GPS work?

According to Wikipedia

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on or near the Earth, where there is an unobstructed line of sight to four or more GPS satellites. It is maintained by the United States government and is freely accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver.

Normally, about four satellites of known location are required to accurately calculate the location of a GPS device on the surface of the Earth. They each send out a signal. These signals are precisely, and contain the time the signal was sent and the position of the satellite at the time the signal was sent. The GPS receiver determines its location by calculating the transit time of the signal and working out its distance from each satellite. It uses some mathematical trickery called trilateration to calculated location. Pretty clever stuff!

How does the GPS encoder work?

Techno-terrorist Gupta has acquired this magic box which Carver uses to convince the HMS Devonshire it’s in a different place. It uses a method known as meaconing – which Wikipedia describes as:

…the interception and rebroadcast of navigation signals

The signals would have to be rebroadcast on the same frequency as they are originally broadcast in order to produced the required interference. To work, the meaconing device (in this case, the Encoder) needs to be placed between the satellites and the receiver so that is can receive and resend the ship’s signal. Which seems simple enough, but all the encoder action seems to happen on the Stealth Boat… :-/

I’ll just be concerned when the Leveson enquiry digs up Rupert Murdoch’s stealth boat…

Not Rupert Murdoch

I rather enjoyed Tomorrow Never Dies, so rest assured, Schiensh will return in July for The World is Not Enough.

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Of course we’re going to throw faeces at him…

Arthur Eddington theorised that an infinite number of monkeys tapping away on typewriters would eventually reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare. A practical demonstration of this using a computer keyboard and six Celebes Crested Macaques in a Devon zoo merely resulted in 5 pages of the letter ‘S’ and a keyboard smeared in poo. Not necessarily the actions of an intelligent life form.

From the film Project Nim

Or maybe not. Bill Hopkins and his team at Emory University have conducted behavioural experiments in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Chimps are one of the few species, aside from humans, that throw things at specific targets. Invariably, this includes faeces. According to the authors one of the aims if the study was to test whether chimps that have learned to throw are socially more sophisticated or more intelligent than those that have not. Because the chimps are aware that their actions can influence those around them (throwing poo at people does tend to make them more sweary), it is thought that they are better able to adapt socially and are more able to manipulate situations. Apes went thought a series of cognitive tests to measure communication, spatial cognition, memory, causality and theory of mind. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to compare the brain activity of apes that could throw well with those who could not.

What the authors found was that chimps who threw more stuff and with better aim showed more activity in the brain areas associated with movement and movement planning during cognitive testing. The scientists suggest that this is a result of better connectivity in the brains of throwing-chimps. Theses chimps were also better communicators, not only with other chimps, but with humans as well – bear in mind how strongly ape and monkeys depend on gestural communication.

Here’s an example of some smart monkeys:

Curiously, the same conclusions cannot be extrapolated to humans; by and large human premiership footballers, while very skilled at kicking a ball (and presumably throwing faeces), tend to lack verbal communication skills (as evidenced by anyone who has tried to watch post-match interviews). Although their gestural communication on the pitch is probably pretty good.

Full paper here: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 12 January 2012 vol. 367 no. 1585 37-47, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0195

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The Schiensh of Bond: Moonraker

BlogalongaBond – a Bond film a month until Skyfall is released (I hate The Incredible Suit so much right now).

I think the plots have been ropy for a while – they’ve mostly involved a crazed megalomaniac destroying life on Earth while allowing a subset of the beautiful and the vacuous to survive underwater/underground/underwater/in space, while Bond goes on a weird array of nonsensical trips to Switzerland, Japan and generic South America. Moonraker dispenses entirely with reason, logic and comprehensible plot, to cash-in on the late ‘70s obsession with all things space. George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, you have a lot to answer for.

But I realised what bothers me most is that Bond has the inability to die in precarious situations. Read on as I continue on the ill-advised task of whining about the Schiensh of Moonraker, subtitled WHY WON’T YOU DIE?

Bond fails to die pt.1 – jumping out of an airplane without a parachute

The film’s opening is rather promising: Roger Moore falls out of an aeroplane without a parachute. It had so much promise. That bastard Bond pulls a parachute of a defenceless henchman and leaves him to fall to his death. The odds surviving a fall from a plane are pretty slim.

According to Wikipedia, the higher someone falls, the more severe any injuries. The chances of survival increase if the faller lands on a surface with high deformity. Survival is also strongly dependent on anything that may slow descent; even a partially open parachute may mean the difference between life and death. There is a site called The Free Fall Research Page which lists accounts of survival from falls from height. There is a section dedicated to Unlucky Skydivers it’s rather astonishing how many people do survive. Many of them survive because their falls are broken by power lines, corrugated roofs etc. Some people are lucky enough to survive without such things breaking their falls – Bear Grylls survived a fall in the desert, but he was in pieces for months afterwards. From the accounts that exist, it would seem plausible that Jaws could survive a fall from a plane by landing on a circus tent. The fate of the anonymous henchman seems less certain, he almost certainly dies unless he has the good fortune to land on a barn.

Bond fails to die pt.2 – death by centrifuge

Shortly after his arrival at Drax’s lair, Dr Goodhead *headdesk* leads Bond to the high-G training centrifuge chamber thing. Scary Asian henchman turns the knob on the centrifuge up to 13 g. Dr Goodhead is good enough to explain that most people pass out at 7 g, and if the g is high enough for long enough, the poor sod stuck in the centrifuge will die. Bond, however, does not have the decency to die. Damn him.

Why does high g cause someone to black out? Well, it is all to do with blood flow to the brain. Normally, blood pressure remains fairly constant – it is carefully maintained in a narrow range by a group of autonomic reflexes. These reflexes adjust. For example when you go from lying down to standing up, your blood pressure needs to increase to ensure that your brain receives sufficient blood. Your reflexes are able to increase blood pressure to the required level. You may have noticed that occasionally, if you stand up too quickly, your vision will go fuzzy, or you may even faint. This is when your reflexes don’t quite compensate quickly enough.

In the centrifuge for high-g training and in instances of high g caused by high speeds, your blood tends to collect in your legs. Your reflexes compensate by raising your blood pressure up to a point, but this isn’t sustained. A second reflex takes over and blood pressure falls, in a similar manner to what happens during blood loss. The fall in blood pressure means that there is a decrease in blood flow to the brain which leads to gradual loss of vision, followed by loss of consciousness. If the blood flow to the brain becomes insufficient for longer than a few minutes, the brain will start to die. So close. Why won’t you die, Mr Bond?

Bond fails to die pt.3 – death by nerve gas

Bond goes nosing around a lab in Venice. Honestly, sneaking into a lab and carelessly jabbing at things at random without so much at a latex glove. Annoyingly, Bond nonchalantly shoves the most lethal chemical in the lab into his top pocket. In the process, he leaves a vial of the same toxic substance in a precarious position thereby killing a bunch of innocent scientists with his carelessness. Lab safety is in force for a reason. Now kids, never enter a lab without due supervision. And don’t touch anything. Health and safety is about other people’s safety as much as your own.

Q analyses the vial that Bond has stolen from the lab. He waves the chemical structure around. Bond observes that it is a “chemical formula of a plant” he is of course totally wrong. Plants have many components: DNA, proteins, sugars, cellulose. None of which are summarised by the chemical structure. What he means is “that looks like a plant-derived toxin to me, and by the way, I never told you about that degree I have in pharmacological chemistry”.

I have no idea what this is and I did chemistry A-level. I am, quite frankly, baffled that Bond knows. I can tell you that it is not DNA, a protein, an amino acid or a sugar. Fortunately, I just happen to know a lecturer in Forensic Toxicology. I handed him the formula for analysis.

Nerve agents come from a group of compounds called anticholinesterases and they affect the way that nerve signals are relayed in the body. Irreversible nerve agents contain a phosphate group and are classed as organophosphates. This compound above does appear to contain phosphorus atom, however, in an organophosphate, the oxygen atom (O) would be double-bonded to the phosphate atom (P) in the phosphate group.

Firstly, the drug is entirely fictitious, being impossible to make. Secondly, the DS doesn’t equate to a chemical element, it may be a molecule of sulphur (S) connected to a molecule of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen; but why not use H, which is standard notation). They might mean Darmstadtium (Ds) and the capitalised S is a typo. Darmstadtium is very unstable existing for mere secong –  this is unlikely to occur in nature, though the chaps at Drax laboratories may have added this to the formula.

According to Wikipedia, effective organophosphates would have 2 lipophilic (fat-soluble) groups bonded to the phosphorus (this would enable the nerve agent to pass though the skin. In contrast – Drax’s nerve agent has a polar carboxyl group, although the three carbon rings in the middle (tricylohexane group) are very non-polar and may counteract this.

The poor unsuspecting scientists do appear to die in a manner consistent with nerve gas poisoning. The liquid (which is usually quite volatile) vapourises. When it is inhaled, it gets into the body where it interferes with the signals that go from the brain to the diaphragm and the victim can no longer breathe. They asphyxiate and DIE.

Bond fails to die pt.4 – death by cable car

Bond randomly bumps into Dr Goodhead *cough* on Sugarloaf mountain, followed by Jaws. Jaws being notable for having metal teeth, being rather large and being apparently very strong. Jaws attempts to kill Bond and Goodhead by biting through the cable suspending the cable car. It’s clear when you watch the film that the cable has already been cut before Richard Kiel “bites” through it. Fortunately for me Mythbusters have already dealt with this one. They found that even when applying 20,000 lbs of pressure, they were unable to cut through one inch of cable with metal teeth; they tried sharpened teeth as well as the blunt teeth Jaws appears to have in the film. It took a purpose designed hydraulic cutter to go through the cable. 20 tonnes of pressure could not possibly be applied through a set of human jaws.

Sadly, despite the efforts of Hugo Drax and his own ineptitude, James Bond fails to die.

That aside, here are the highlights of Moonraker.

Still, we’re halfway through the Moore, and it won’t get this bad until Die Another Day. BlogalongaBond is looking up.

 

Follow the Lemur wishes to acknowledge the help of the University of Dundee Centre for Forensic and Legal Medicine for their input on Drax’s deadly nerve toxin.

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Another Diamond Planet

I was curious as to why I was getting so many hits for my diamond planet post from a few months back. Which is when I found out about this.

20110903-013448.jpg

I have dug up a copy of the paper (which I mostly don’t understand). According to a press release from Jodrell Bank (University of Manchester) astronomers believe that they have found a solid diamond planet that formed from the collapse of a star orbiting a pulsar.

A pulsar is a type of star that spins and emits regular bursts of radio waves. This particular pulsar, J1719-1438, spins more than 10,000 times a minute. The planet was found because there were oscillations in the the frequency with which the star emitted radio wave bursts; these fluctuations in signal were the result of the gravitational pull of this new planet. The scientists have established the planet’s orbit – it’s very rapid – and also the distance from the pulsar. From this they have also determined the density of the planet – despite being half the mass of Jupiter, it is smaller than the Earth – and therefore incredibly dense. The astronomers believe that the planet is all that remains of a star, probably a white dwarf, that has all of its matter was sucked away by the pulsar.

The researchers, from The University of Manchester as well as institutions in Australia, Germany, Italy, and the USA, first detected the pulsar using the Parkes radio telescope of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and followed up their discovery with the Lovell radio telescope, based at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, and one of the Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

The project is part of a systematic search for pulsars in the whole sky also involved the 100-m Effelsberg radio telescope of the Max-Planck-Institute for Radioastronomy (MPIfR). “This is the largest and most sensitive survey of this type ever conducted. We expected to find exciting things, and it is great to see it happening. There is more to come!”, promises Prof. Michael Kramer, Director at the MPIfR in Bonn, Germany.

Most pulsars have companion stars. Because the companion object is so small and so close to Pulsar J1719-1438, that the remaining a matter is likely to be carbon and oxygen, probably in a crystalline formation.

Cribbed together from a couple of press releases:
http://www.jb.man.ac.uk/news/2011/DiamondPlanet/
http://www.mpifr-bonn.mpg.de/public/pr/pr-pulsar-august2011-en.html

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A Snacking Craze

This particular post is the result of a challenge issued by ex-lab buddy @foetalgod. He has pretty good credentials in this field as, when we were lab mates, he was focussing on insulin, metabolism and blood glucose. I was his insulin-making bitch-monkey. He’s also a successful dieter.

The challenge was to look into the scientific claims made by the snack delivery company Graze. The company sends out reasonably priced snack boxes (free postage), largely containing healthy snacks – dried fruit, seeds and nuts. They also do really nice flapjacks (anyone who has ever made flapjacks will know how much sugar, syrup and butter goes in). Apparently. These are noble aims indeed. As a nation, the British are getting fatter. According to an NHS report published last year, in 2008 almost one quarter of the English adult population were obese and over half the adult population was overweight. This is primarily due to physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet; for example only 25 % of men and 29 % of women were eating 5 or more portions of fruit or veg every day. The official advice is to reduce consumption of sugar, saturated fat and salt and to increase intake of whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables. As well as exercise more. Right.

A first glance at the Graze website and it’s all very friendly – it’s a nice site, the postage is free. And, according to the site, the consumption of their snack foods throughout the day provide the following benefits:

graze for good energy > Grazing is a great way to ensure you have good energy all day long

help you lose weight > Grazing can be a great way to help you lose weight by stabilising blood sugar and making you more efficient at burning fat

boost immunity > Grazing on our natural foods is an excellent way of boosting your immunity by filling in vital nutrients that may be missed due to skipped meals and long busy days at work

varied & balanced diet > Grazing on a wide variety of smaller portions of food will help give you more balance and variety for a healthier diet

80/20 rule > Nobody is perfect, and who would want to be?

The last three points I take no issue with. I can’t argue that the interesting and varied snacks that Graze provide will lead to a more varied diet. Yes, nutrients provided by the Graze snacks may help the immune system if you are deficient in them. And, yes, it’s fine to occasionally eat things that are bad for you as long as you eat well the rest of the time. It’s the rest of those points. They seem to be making claims, which, seeing as there are no references to any scientific research at all, for which they’ve provided no evidence. I thought I would investigate each claim using scientific evidence.

“Blood Sugar”

OK, good energy? Is that like the force? Jedi use the good energy and Sith use the bad energy? This is the first time that Graze invoke the magic words “blood sugar”. Most of their snacks “release energy slowly” – I presume they mean that the glucose contained in these foods is slowly absorbed by the gut. Then they wave these pretty graphs in front of us:

They look good – blood sugar levels are more stable if you “graze”. But hang on a minute; where did this data come from? What are these people eating? Where are the numbers? Like the rest of the Graze site, there are no references. I did some rummaging on the internet; even Wikipedia has a better graph than this. However, I found exactly what I was looking for in a couple of papers.

Mean plasma glucose for the group of nine volunteers (mean+SE) Arrows indicate timing of meal presentation, and bars represent the sleep period.

This figure was taken from Biston et al 1996. The researches took 9 young healthy volunteers, took blood samples every 20 mins to test their blood glucose levels. Over the 24 hours during which blood sugar was being monitored, the volunteers ate 3 identical carb rich meals (the paper described the precise composition of the meals). So yeah, as you can see, blood sugar increases after meals (meal times are indicated by the arrows). The blood glucose levels drop after meals because insulin is also released. Insulin causes glucose to be taken up by the liver and muscles so it can be stored until it’s needed later. You can seen that with the meals eaten here, it takes a while for the blood glucose levels to fall. There doesn’t seem to be a 3pm chocolate time. Also, as you can seen from the graph below, release of insulin mirrors blood glucose levels very closely.

High levels of glucose in the blood are dangerous: it can affect the concentration of substances important to biological processes required for life. If levels are too high for too long, over many years, high blood sugar can lead to organ damage – this is often seen in people with diabetes. Diabetes, blood sugar and insulin are inextricably linked; type 2 diabetes occurs as a result of loss of insulin sensitivity by the cells of the body, and fluctuating blood glucose levels are a causative factor. The body knows that the best thing to do with excess glucose is to store it. So insulin is released from the pancreas and it stimulates the uptake of glucose into the liver and muscles so that is can be stored for use later. The amounts of insulin released into the blood shows a similar pattern to levels of glucose in the blood, because it is important that the body tightly regulates glucose. Low blood glucose is extremely dangerous and can lead to coma and death as the brain must have glucose to function.

But not all diets are equal, and I guess that this is one of the thing Graze allude to in their foods that “release energy slowly”

Diurnal profile of blood glucose concentrations with the high-starch and high-sucrose diets. Mean ± SEM; n = 8

Daly et al 1998 looked at the effects of a high sucrose (sugar) diet versus a high starch diet on blood sugar levels and found that in those subjects on a high-sucrose diet, blood sugar fluctuated a lot more. In the meals eaten by the volunteers, there were no differences in fat or protein. This would be the “chocolate bar” effect. Eating high-starch, rather than high-sucrose meals kept blood glucose levels more stable, and blood sugar levels do not nose-dive to pre-food levels.

When foods are converted into glucose quickly, the body reacts by releasing loads of insulin. Insulin is the catalyst that converts sugar into fat and stops the body from burning it.

Well, they’re half right. But they are completely wrong about insulin. It is not a catalyst that converts sugar into fat. It is signalling molecule that tells the muscles and liver to take up sugar from the blood. The sugar is then converted to to glycogen so it can be stored, the “catalyst” or enzyme for this is glycogen synthase. When there is a lot of glucose, the glucose is converted to fat by a very complicated process shown in the diagram below (Help! I’m having biochemistry flashbacks! Make it stop! Make it stop!)

I propose, instead, that many eat between meals out of either boredom – you’re stuck in an office working, eating is something to do, unhealthy food is easily accessibly – or because many don’t eat properly at lunch (or skip lunch entirely) causing havoc with blood sugar levels. From experience, I know I eat what food is available. With the Graze snacks, most of them are healthy. But man cannot live on seeds alone, so eat a decent lunch.

Does “grazing” make you more efficient at burning fat? Well, despite this being the gospel pushed by flakey diet books, I am struggling to find scientific evidence that a low glycaemic diet and/or frequent meals (which causes fewer fluctuations in blood glucose levels), actually make fat burning more efficient. The statement is ambiguous and essentially meaningless. However, there’s evidence that implies that break down of fat is reduced when insulin levels are high. So, in a manner of speaking this is true. Maybe.

Miscellaneous cackwaffle

There are other points along the site that SCREAM bullcrap. Yes, I’m nit-picking, but if they did their research (or at least cited their information sources) they’d have some defence. Firstly, there’s the 4 Box Detox – this is hidden away somewhere on the site so I can’t properly whine about it, but you can read here for my take on detox. And it’s something that has been covered in depth elsewhere.

They have a list:

Here are our top tips to help keep blood sugar within the green zone:

  • never skip breakfast — it really is the most important meal of the day
  • eat natural (unrefined) foods
  • drink less tea and coffee (they are stimulants that mess with your blood sugar)
  • drink more water
  • eat whole fruits rather than juices
  • remember fibre is your friend!
  • try to cut down smoking
  • eat slowly — chew your food to release all that energy
  • don’t skip meals

I have a minor issue with the drink more water point, merely because it harks back to the “drink 8 glasses of water a day” myth.

But “drink less tea and coffee” HOW VERY DARE THEY! Yes, both contain caffeine, this is true. It has been proved repeatedly that coffee increases both insulin and glucose levels after eating. Curiously, there is an increasing amount of evidence that coffee may have beneficial effects in patients with type 2 diabetes (and this).

Black tea contains phenol compounds that inhibit alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme the breaks down sucrose to glucose in the small intestine, these phenol compounds in the tea slow the conversion to glucose (the form of sugar your body uses), which would slow down the rise in blood glucose levels after a meal. When you try this in humans, tea lowers the spike in blood glucose after a meal. So there. Check your facts Graze.

I would, however, kill for one of their honeycomb flapjacks right about now…

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World Cackwaffle Awareness Week

Apparently it is World Homeopathy Awareness Week (#WHAW), so I have decided to take on some social responsibility and make you aware of homeopathy and its batshit arsebackwards logic. I’m not going to post regularly on alternative medicine as it has been covered much better elsewhere. In theory, this shall be my only post on homeopathy. Unless someone proves it works…

You’ve heard of homeopathy right? It comes under Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Different from conventional medicine; different from medicines that are prescribed by doctors, different from medicines that have had to undergo trials to test whether they work, what dose they work at and what side-effects they have. Complementary and alternative medicines haven’t had to go through these before you can buy them. They may work, they may not, but to quote Tim Minchin’s Storm:

You know what they call “alternative medicine” that’s been proved to work? Medicine.


There are different sorts of CAM, homeopathy is just one branch. While herbal medicines may contain active ingredients – like St John’s Wort, which contains chemicals similar to those found in antidepressants; and plants are an invaluable source of pharmaceutically active compounds, e.g aspirin from willow bark, digoxin from foxglove, quinine, atropine from belladonna and so on, homeopathy is something altogether other. Don’t confuse homeopathy with herbal medicine.

There are two main concepts homeopathy is based on – the first is to treat “like-with-like”. This means that whatever symptoms you have, the homeopath would treat them with something that would cause the same symptoms.

OK, a semi-realistic example. I get eczema, pretty much only on my hands, and it seems to be weather dependent. It’s a mild irritation at most, but suppose I think steroid cream is a bit overkill (i have only been told to use it if the eczema is bad). I google homeopathic eczema treatments and I get this: http://www.revital.co.uk/Health_Directory/Homeo/Eczema_hm

I don’t really know what these things are. They sound scientific-y because they are in latin. One of the treatments recommended is Suphur. All chemicals bought for laboratory use come with an MSDS sheet which tells you important stuff about what the chemicals do, what happens when they burn, is it dangerous etc. It says:

SKIN CONTACT Remove affected person from source of contamination.  Remove contaminated clothing.  Wash the skin immediately with soap and water.  Get medical attention if any discomfort continues.

(That’s pretty standard with most chemicals actually)

SKIN CONTACT Powder may irritate skin

Right, so I am going to treat my itchy irritated skin by using a preparation of something that makes your skin itchy…? It doesn’t really contain sulphur, but I’ll get onto that later.

Similarly, homeopathic treatment of hayfever is by using preparations made from red onion. See the logic: cutting onions makes your eyes water, hayfever makes your eyes water; therefore red onion should be used to treat hayfever. I could be wrong, but this is akin to me treating my headache with a piece of desk against which I have been bashing my head. Or… this:

The idea of treating “like-with-like” sort of works for vaccines; the tuberculosis jab contains a very weak form of the bacteria that cause TB. It acts like a wanted poster for the disease – your immune system has seen it before, has made the antibodies, so when it sees it again it will take it down like so many bad police movie cliches. Treating like-for-like has some success in treating allergies. Allergies, like eczema, hayfever, asthma, peanuts and so on are caused by the immune system being overly-active, responding to things it should not react to. In allergen immunotherapy a patient is initially a very small amount of what they are allergic to, so small it doesn’t cause them to react. The amount of allergen is gradually increased until the patient can tolerate it and is no longer allergic to it. This is not the same as homeopathy. Which takes me to my next point.

Dilution. This is where homeopathy really does get things arse-backwards. The process called “dynamisation” or “potentisation” involves making the preparation more “powerful” by diluting it in alcohol or water and shaking it or by grinding them up with lactose. According to wikipedia a 1 in 100 dose is at the lower end of potency that would be used (2X) , if you dilute this further (through serial diluting and shaking, remember, the shaking is important *facepalm*) you get to 6C,  a fairly standard dose. 6C is, according to the homeopath school of wacky-thought, more potent than 2X, but the actually concentration is a 1 in 10000000000 dilution. When you get to a dilution of 1 in 1000000000000000000000000 (that’s 24 zeros) you are coming up to the point where there is only 1 molecule of your original thing in lots of water, be it a sulphur molecule, onion molecule or molecule of desk that I have been bashing my head against; this is 12C. The standard preparation homeopaths give is 30C – at this point there are no molecules of the original substance in the preparation. This is nicely discussed over at 1023.

And I have borrowed this from DC’s Improbable Science because it’s such a nice illustration about how ridiculous the concept of a 30C dilution is (btw David Colquhoun is an awesome skeptical blogger and professor of neuroscience – if you’re interested in science skepticism, he’s well worth a follow @david_colquhoun – he has a PIPE!)

So one molecule of sulphur in a pill that is the same diameter as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. You’re going to need more than a glass of water to swallow that one.

Pharmacology is the science of how drugs affect the body. For a drug to work, it must bind to specialised little proteins called receptors. Receptors are found on all cells in the body. There are many many different kinds of receptors, and they have different properties. Different receptors are found on different types of cells and different cells are found in different parts of the body. When a drug binds to a receptor on a cell, it has some effect on the cell, often this effect can be measured. The higher the concentration or amount of drug the more likely the drug is to bind to receptors and the more receptors can be activated. So, the more drug there is, the bigger the effect on the cell. And this is true for individual cells, groups of cells, whole organs and the entire body. Every newbie student of the biomedical sciences has had to do dose-response curves to death in pharmacology practicals. I shall endeavor to explain. If you give a dose of a drug – let’s use a 1 in 10 dilution, I’ll call it 1mM (this means there is 1 milimole of drug dissolved in 1 litre of water) you get quite a big response in your tissue (I’m going to use the textbook example of contractions of guinea pig small intestine). Now dilute 1ml of this in 9 mls of water, add it to your little setup, you get a smaller response. If you dilute your drug again, apply it to your preparation you get an even smaller effect, continue this until you get no effect.

Borrowed and adapted from here http://bit.ly/hgUI2t

So, wait, homeopathy’s dilution to make something more potent makes NO sense. And then you have to remember that there is a finite amount of water on Earth, and that it has had fish swimming around, been through any number of animal urinary tracts, and has jebus knows how much poo in it. Proponents for homeopathy have suggested that water has memory, there is much hand-waving and mumbling of quantum. W.T.F? Water memory? This is what the journal Nature has to say on the subject.

Still, it’s not doing any harm you say? Not strictly true. http://whatstheharm.net/homeopathy.html has an ongoing tally of consequences of homeopathy. Those being treated with homeopathy often fail to seek medical attention from a doctor. Homeopaths have provided ineffective treatments for serious conditions such as prophylaxis against malaria – leading life-threatening disease. There are masses of saddening tales of people who have paid thousands of pounds for homeopathic cancer treatments – it is exploitative and disgusting to make money from the dying and desperate.

No one has yet proved that homeopathy works better than placebo in double-blind placebo-controlled trials. It’s not like there isn’t a motive to prove they work, Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh have put up £10,000 for anyone who can prove homeopathy works. Plus, y’know, if it is proven to work, and as it’s mostly water, it’s cheaper than conventional medicine – so it would be adopted by the NHS in a heartbeat.

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Because nuclear power is evil’n’shit…

I got irritated. In fact I got annoyed. This post is partly the result of protest I spotted in Cambridge city centre. A t-shirt reading: “Think nuclear is the future? ask Japan!” Or something along those lines. This struck me as downright stupid, a rather moronic case of entirely-missing-the-point. Just after the Japanese earthquake I read Gia Milinovich’s post on the safety of nuclear power – initially suspicious of nuclear power, her reading lead her to a change of heart. Earlier today George Monbiot had this piece in the Guardian. Much more compelling, and also a lot more worrying.

Monbiot describes how the anti-nuclear lobby have been scare-mongering with barely a shred of data, in a way that means those in the vanguard in finding alternatives to fossil fuels are almost dogmatically opposed to nuclear energy. The alternatives that have been pushed are solar and wind power – these have their own issues which I’ll not go into here – namely, can they reliably meet our energy needs?

If you search “a history of nuclear disasters” in google you get this in The Torygraph and this in Wikipedia . It goes without saying that the most catastrophic nuclear disaster is Chernobyl. The precise death toll is disputed, but UNSCEAR put the current death toll at 64 people. Remember – the accident at Chernobyl occurred under what were, frankly, criminally poor standards of safety. The experiment that caused the accident, had it been properly planned out, would not had led to an incident. The numbers of people supposedly affected long-term by the incident are highly disputed. The rather helpful greenfacts.org website discusses this:

In 1986, 134 emergency workers who received high doses of radiation were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome (ARS) and 28 of them died from it during the first months after the accident. However, the general populationexposed to the Chernobyl fallout did not suffer from ARS, as the radiation doses received were relatively low.

On future deaths:

…among the 600 000 persons receiving more significant exposures (liquidators working in 1986–1987, evacuees, and residents of the most ‘ contaminated’ areas), the possible increase in cancer mortality due to this radiation exposure might be up to a few per cent, which might eventually represent up to four thousand fatal cancers.

It’s not brilliant, I’ll admit, but consider one third of us will develop cancer of some kind in our lives. So it’s upping the percentage from 33-odd % to 35 %.

Fukushima – 3 weeks ago. 11th March, Japan is hit by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded. While the deaths resulting from the quake were mercifully few – a testament to Japan’s investment in earthquake-proofing – the Tsunami wiped out Sendai in the north east of the island of Honshu. The death toll is still rising, almost a month later. Because Japan is prone to earthquakes, the nuclear power plants shut off automatically. They still require cooling, for which they have diesel generators. In the case of the Fukushima plant, the Tsunami damaged the diesel generator, the facility overheated causing an explosion. Leakage from this facility is what everyone is freaking out about now.

Bear in mind the following when you try and use Fukushima as an argument against the UK building more nuclear power plants:

1. These Japanese power plants were designed and constructed in the 1970s. That’s 40 years.

2. Really REALLY bad luck. The nuclear power plant survived the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan, before the huge tsunami damaged a back-up. Japan sits on the meeting point of three tectonic plates. On the other hand, the UK is basically covered in an upturned tupperware container – i.e. nothing bloody happens here. Clearly, we shouldn’t build a power plant on a flood plain, but aside from that.

There’s a nice xkcd thingy on radiation dosages here.

If you’re going to make an argument against nuclear power, you’re going to have to do better than that.

Can I point you instead to France. 78.8 % of their energy comes from nuclear sources, they are not beholden to oil prices, and it export 18 % of the energy it produces, some of this to the UK. Their energy prices are amongst the lowest in Europe. Think about that. And while, yes, there have been accidents, there hasn’t been a Chernobyl. And it’s not like oil never caused an incident – Buncefield fire at Hemel Hempsted in 2005, The Deepwater Horizon explosion leading to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year. Then of course the numerous collapses and explosions in coal mines.

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Why the BBC might be right to turn down music on Wonders of the Universe

Please don’t throw rotten vegetables at me, but the backlash the BBC are facing – via complaints and on Facebook – has got me thinking. Perhaps the BBC have a point: maybe the soundtrack to Wonders of the Universe is too loud.

I am a soundtrack whore – I love a good loud soundtrack. Seriously. Do you know how loud I play the music from Sunshine!? The score of that film and many others (Inception, Moon, Star Wars, The Social Network, The Shawshank Redemption, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings, the James Bond movies, anything by Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman…) are so important. A soundtrack creates ambience and evokes emotional responses. A case in point? John Murphy’s Adagio in D minor from Sunshine. And one of the brilliant things about Wonders is its ability to evoke that “Wow” response. I’m not complaining – not only is Professor Brian Cox probably single-handedly saving the future of physics, he might even be saving curiosity-driven research. Which is all good.

The BBC claim that they received 118 complaints from people saying that they could not hear Cox’s narration over the music. The BBC responded by remixing the rest of the series so that the music is quieter while Cox speaks. Brian Cox’s response to being questioned by Andrew Marr on Start the Week was that the BBC were too responsive to these complaints. He stated that:

“We can sometimes be too responsive to the minority of people that complain.”

He added: “It should be a cinematic experience – it’s a piece of film on television, not a lecture.”

And having read some of the complaints, they do come across as rather fuddy-duddy-ish (from the BBC):

One viewer complained to Points of View: “You don’t have to dumb everything down by pretending we’re all in a nightclub.”

Another wrote: “I am fully able to sort out the annoying cacophony of sounds to hear the narration but why on earth should I have to work so hard to do it?”

From the piece by AOL TV – also apparently a bunch of miserable old sods who don’t like TV trying to be modern, or this cool young upstart physicist with his haircut and lack of old-man beard:

The viewer complaints were endorsed by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He’s Master of the Queen’s Music and is waging a campaign against the insidious creep of “muzak”.
Sir Peter said: “Viewers of this programme have not tuned in to listen to a musical performance. I find the whole thing dreadful. Why do serious scientists and programme-makers feel the need for such wallpaper? It really does come to something when even a science programme is being drowned out by muzak.

“We are being driven from even serious television programmes by this incessant need for background music. I remember having to turn off an otherwise fascinating David Attenborough wildlife programme because some muzak moron had decided it was a good idea to play background music to the animals’ antics. It just made the whole thing ridiculous.”

“In my day, we had no such need for music… or colour, or in fact, the universe. We didn’t need things like the Big Bang. When I was a lad.” I’m clearly paraphrasing here. But you know what, oh ye complainers of music: you are really not helping yourselves here.

Slightly better complaint:

On the BBC website, one viewer wrote: “Yet again a programme we have been looking forward to utterly ruined by music that drowns out the words. Why does the BBC think its viewers need to have every second filled with noise? We haven’t got the attention span of a gnat.”

The Royal National Institute for Deaf people have also weighed in and they were actually constructive:

“We welcome the BBC’s decision to lower the level of background music on the Wonders of the Universe, which will make this already dramatic and engaging programme more accessible and enjoyable for people with hearing loss. Background noise on news and factual programmes, in particular, is very challenging for hard of hearing viewers and reducing its impact will delight many people with hearing loss.”

This is actually a pretty important when you consider the following – hearing loss is the most common disability in the UK, the most common form is age-related hearing-loss:

A total of 41.7% of over 50 year-olds in the UK have some kind of hearing loss.

Of over 70 year-olds in the UK, a total of 71.1% have some kind of hearing loss.

These percentages include the full range, from mild hearing loss all the way up to profound deafness.

Stats courtesy of the RNID website.

Which means most of us will likely suffer from some sort of hearing loss. This is where I put my research hat on and my cards on the table: I work on the genetics of deafness. One of the things noticed by people with hearing loss is the inability to focus on someone talking in a room full of chatter – the so-called “Cocktail party effect”. In fact, the ability to discern one voice from background noise is how the RNID website and iPhone app hearing check test works. Normally, your brain is able to filter conversation from background, but the louder the background noise, the more difficult it is to hear the conversation. Our ears are sensitive to frequency (pitch) and sound intensity (volume), the amazing little cells in our ears are exquisitely sensitive to pitch, and so through the complex processing pathways within our brains, we can discern a speaker from the background music. That is until the background music is louder than the narrator. As we age, these sound sensitive cells gradually die, and we lose our ability to discriminate speech from the din.

To put it visually it looks like this:

The black line represents the background noise or music. In the box on the left-hand side, the background noise (depicted in black) is low and the green line (the narration) can be easily picked out. In the right-hand image, the background is noisier and the green line, the narration, isn’t as large and isn’t as distinct as in the first image.

Another example, below, is basically the same processing done by the brain, but in the visual system. In the left-hand image, the background is dark and the writing is bright – the equivalent of the background music being quiet and the narration being loud. In the right-hand box, the background is almost as bright as the writing in the box, so the writing is more difficult to read – this is similar to trying to listen to dialogue with a loud musical soundtrack in the background.

As we age, and, in most cases, our hearing deteriorates, it becomes more difficult to identify the dialog from the background. This can be a real problem. Considering the large number of people who develop some form of hearing loss, it’s probably no bad thing that the BBC has been looking into this. It’s all very well jumping on a “We want our background music back” bandwagon, but for those who are actually suffering because they are unable to hear the dialogue in Wonders there is nothing they can do during the programme. Simply turning up the TV volume increases the volume of the background noise too, and so the problem of not being able to hear the Professor Cox remains. This is not only an issue for Wonders; the BBC is looking into this for other TV shows as well.

However, I have re-watched the offending episode of Wonders and didn’t notice anything, but then I have no problems with my hearing. I spoke to my Dad (who is the first person to complain about the volume of the TV, he commented on his inability to hear what’s going on in The Sarah Jane Adventures) and he also had no problems with the show. So it passed the Papa-lemur-old-git test.

Did the BBC go too far? Possibly. Is Professor Brian Cox right to criticise the BBC for its actions? Probably. Is it just miserable old farts complaining about loud music? More than likely.

I’ll leave you with the comments of Danny Cohen, controller of BBC1, who wrote a very good response. One of the most interesting points was this:

“Reducing the music by just one point, four decibels, when the programme is finally mixed allowed many more people to understand what was being said without compromising the editorial vision.

This was particularly true for people who had any form of hearing loss.”

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James Watson – “I worry about getting shorter”

So, the great thing about working at a prestigious research institute that is obsessed with genetics is that we get some great speakers; this time it was James Watson. You don’t know who that is, do you? For those uninitiated in the ways of the science nerd – Watson won the Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick (a Northamptoner) and Maurice Wilkins for discovering, along with Rosalind Franklin, the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the composition of genes. Not long before they discovered DNA, it was thought that heritable traits – genes – were proteins. DNA is actually a sugar. He’s a sort of a science-king.

He’s a bit old now (83) and like many olds he’s prone to a bit of casual racism. Allegedly. A bit like your granny. We heard he was coming, and we knew it was going to be a corker. We weren’t disappointed – in the informal chat with a group of young enthusiastic scientists, he said we were all a bit scared of the chinese because there were so many of them. I’m sure that was tongue in cheek. In the ensuing questions he confirmed the importance of the legendary Eagle pub “we ate lunch there every day”. Anyone in science will point out that most interesting discoveries stem from trips to the pub or tea-breaks. Watson despaired at the lack of heating in houses in 1950s Cambridge and was amused by the etiquette “Francis had to write a letter to Maurice and Maurice had to write back before Francis would go down to London and visit Maurice’s lab”.

Watson outed himself as an atheist; I’ve not encountered many americans so vocal about not believing in god – quite something in a country that rates atheists as less trustworthy than all other people of faith. But he is a man of science and has clearly applied this to all aspects of his life. He is at least consistent. He declared that DNA is god (I’m still waiting for the Higgs Boson tbh), and his response to alternative medicine: “bulls***”. On his political leanings, he dismisses republicans in the same breath as god, though he has become increasingly irritated by the leftest camp and its embracing of woo, vegetarian hippy-ness and alternative medicine. What was noticeable was his dissmissal of the importance of protein structure and the function in life, as well as changes that were unrelated to genes such as environmental factors. He came across as someone who holds genetics in high regard, almost to the detriment of other aspects of biology.  He clearly isn’t afraid to speak his mind and doesn’t suffers fool at all; brash, but never dull, we were in for a treat.

Image: The Science Museum, Who Am I

The lecture theatre (incidentally, named after Francis Crick) was packed, there was literally nowhere left to stand. His talk was rather optimistically titled “Curing Incurable Cancer”. Becoming interested in studying cancer after his father’s younger brother died of it at a very young age, he studied under Salvador Luria at Indiana University where he was studying viruses that caused cancer. He says his PhD wasn’t in any way noteworthy, but he was reading, reading a lot, and became interested in studying genes.

Watson led the NIH side of the Human Genome Project (I might discuss this at some point, but expect it to be horrifically biased), but left over disputes relating to patenting genes. The US consortium patented genes as they were discovered, The Sanger Institute had to make their sequences publicly available. This led to what should have been a collaboration becoming highly competitive (see also “Why Craig Venter is Evil”). Watson says he left NIH because he thought DNA shouldn’t be patent. Respeck. Ten years on from sequencing the human genome, Watson sees the fruit of the project as a way to reveal the genes underlying cancer by being able to study the molecular pathways that lead to cancer. He himself was diagnosed with an easily treatable cancer, but was made further aware of how far we have to go in science’s efforts to sure cancer. During his talk he highlighted some exciting discoveries in cancer research.

Vitamin D has been show to have anti-cancer effects (though this is disputed), though the way it does this is unknown. Interestingly, some drugs used to treat heart problems, such as the foxglove derivative digoxin seems to have  beneficial effects. Watson points out that one key point in cancer is to prevent cancer spreading from the tumour around the body (metastasis). Signals that regulated the growth of blood vessels appear to be important and there are some drugs – notably Avastin – that seem to prevent cancer spreading. These drugs are still going through clinical trials, Watson was quite vocal about drug regulators  preferring people die of cancer than from drugs (I don’t entirely agree with him here), he also declared that lawyers are the enemy of civilisation (I couldn’t possibly comment).

Other situations linked to cancer are inflammation; signalling molecules released in the body during pain or inflammation – called cytokine – enhance cancer , perhaps the answer is to take a small amount of ibuprofen daily. Then again, this has not been tested in humans. The professor talk guided us back to, for me, something that was familiar territory. A protein I studied during my PhD, adenosine monophosphate activated protein kinase (AMPK). I know it as a metabolic fuel gauge; it is activated when you exercise, when the muscle cells in your body need energy, and it is switched off when you are resting or eating. Metformin is a drug used to treat diabetes, it’s off-patent and therefore comparatively cheap. When it is used in combination with normal chemotherapy drugs, it makes them more effective. He covered other developments such as targeting energy producing processes in tumour cells, and possible roles of chromosome modelling (shrug – this is where I point out I find cancer biology rather dull; it consists of studying intracellular biochemical reactions, I was trained as a physiologist . I’m glad someone is studying it, but it would drive me mad.)

James Watson forsees us (well, scientists who are interested in cancer biology) curing cancer within the next 10 years. For this to happen, scientists have to focus on actually curing cancer rather than just publishing papers (the papers published by a lab are directly linked to the ability to obtain money to run a lab.) This, he reasoned, would be doable if we put as much energy and resources into fighting cancer as we have at war…

we should get out of Afghanistan and go to war against cancer

My favourite quote – aside from the one in the title sums up James D. Watson

If we cure cancer, we’ve got another 10 years before we need to do anything else

Once we’ve dealt with cancer, we can then move on to figuring out the brain. This, he says, is what he’d research if he were entering scientific research now. Given that everyone studying cancer’s going to be out of a job in 10 years.

As one person who has had his DNA sequenced, he learned something he had suspected, while a keen consumer of ice-cream, he’d always struggled with stomach pain afterwards. the reason, it turns out he is lactose intolerant, and while he is now aware that he metabolises some drugs quite badly, his biggest concern now is that he seems to be shrinking

I do worry about being short

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