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Infant and Toddler Swimming Programs: Are They Safe and Effective?

It’s now officially summertime, but people have been hitting the pools and beaches for weeks in many parts of the nation. In fact it has been well into the 90’s for over two month here in Baton Rouge, which is what I blame for the early exit of LSU from the College World Series. Our boys just weren’t used to that cold and dry northern weather.

Not surprisingly, the media has already been busy reporting on some of the many tragic drowning incidents that have occurred thus far, and Facebook profiles have been full of commentary from worried parents. And, as usual, there are businesses offering infant and toddler swimming lessons costing hundreds and even thousands of dollars per course, some of which come with claims of decreasing the risk of drowning in the young participants.

At what age can a child begin swimming lessons? According to Jan Emler of Emler Swim School, teaching a child to swim can start “As soon as the umbilical cord falls off.” Emler, like more reputable proponents of infant and toddler swimming programs, doesn’t actually put newborns into swimming pools for lessons (I’ll leave water birthing enthusiasts out of this discussion). For the most part these programs only cover bath time activities to help younger babies grow comfortable being in the water. Truly teaching infants and toddlers behaviors aimed at reducing the likelihood of drowning in the event of falling into a body of water doesn’t usually start until 6 months of age. There are exceptions.

But when should these lessons start, are they safe and do they work? Or do they actually put children at risk of injury and the parent at risk of having a false sense of security? Until their updated 2010 policy statement on the prevention of drowning, the American Academy of Pediatrics came down firmly against initiating swimming lessons in children less than 4 years of age for a number of very good reasons. Why did they soften their stance and does their change of opinion support the claims that are being made by infant and toddler swimming programs?  First some background information.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Public Health

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More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

More bad science in the service of anti-GMO activism

I never used to write much about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) before. I still don’t do it that often. For whatever reason, it just hasn’t been on my radar very much. That seems to be changing, however. It’s not because I went seeking this issue out (although I must admit that I first became interested in genetic engineering when I was in junior high and read a TIME Magazine cover article about it back in the 1970s), but rather because in my reading I keep seeing it more and more in the context of anti-GMO activists using bad science and bad reasoning to justify a campaign to demonize GMOs. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, (Forgive me, I have no idea why I like that expression, given that I don’t hunt.) I really don’t. I was, not too long ago, fairly agnostic on the issue of GMOs and their safety, although, truth be told, because I have PhD in a biomedical science and because my lab work has involved molecular biology and genetics since I was a graduate student in the early 1990s, I found the claims of horrific harm attributable to GMOs not particularly convincing, but hadn’t bothered to take that deep a look into them. It was not unlike my attitude towards the the claims that cell phones cause cancer a few years ago, before I looked into them and noted the utter lack of a remotely-plausible mechanism and uniformly negative studies except for a group in Sweden with a definite ax to grind on the issue. Back then, I realized that there wasn’t really a plausible mechanism by which radio waves from cell phones could cause cancer in that the classic mechanisms by which ionizing radiation can break DNA molecular bonds and cause mutations don’t apply, but I didn’t rule out a tiny possibility that there might be an as-yet unappreciated mechanism by which long term exposure to radio waves might contribute to cancer. I still don’t, by the way, which has gotten me into the odd kerfuffle with some skeptics and one physicist, but I still view the likelihood that cell phone radiation can cause cancer as being just a bit more plausible than homeopathy.

As was the case for the nonexistent cell phone-cancer link, there has now been a steady drip-drip-drip of bad studies touted by anti-GMO activists as “evidence” that GMOs are the work of Satan that will corrupt or kill us all (and make us fat, to boot). Not too long ago, I came across one such study, a truly execrable excuse for science by Gilles-Eric Séralini at the University of Caen purporting to demonstrate that Roundup-resistant genetically modified maize can cause horrific tumors in rats. I looked at the methods and conclusions and what I found was some of the worst science I had ever seen, every bit as bad as the quack “science” used by the antivaccine movement. It wasn’t for nothing that I made the comparison, because the anti-GMO movement is very much like the antivaccine movement and the cranks who claim that cell phone radiation causes cancer. As if to demonstrate that very point, last week I came across an article by the all-purpose crank to rule all cranks, Mike Adams, at NaturalNews.com entitled GMO feed turns pig stomachs to mush! Shocking photos reveal severe damage caused by GM soy and corn:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Nutrition, Science and the Media

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People Encouraging Turtle Agony*

Lest anyone think I am a heartless bastard, I would like it to be known that I do not like to see any creature suffer or die. I am the kind of person who, when finding a spider in the house, is likely to catch it and toss it outside. I always think, “I can’t squish the end result of 6 billion years of evolution”. Except mosquitoes. Those I squish with glee. Infection vectors can die die die die.

I like animals and hate to see them suffer unnecessarily. Like sticking them with needles. Frontal lobes are nice to have. They can let you know that pain is coming and provide preparation and compensation. Once I had a steel bar smack me on the head, opening up a six-inch cut to the bone. No, my brain was not affected, thank you very much. Everything predates the head trauma. When the ER doc numbed the scalp for sutures, he missed the last half-inch and I felt the needle. Knowing what was going on I steeled myself and let him do the last two sutures with no lidocaine, since the needle hurt only a little worse than the lidocaine injection. I have had many other unpleasant medical procedures in my 56 years but knowing what was coming and understanding why makes it easier to tolerate a needle popping into the knee joint or an abdominal drain being pulled.

Animals, and young humans, lack the ability to comprehend the what and why of pain inflicted as part of medicine. Adults can make a conscious decision to be endure pain and fool themselves into thinking it is of benefit. No pain, no gain. Animals can make no such choice.

For example consider sea turtles, who, apparently, are subjected to all sorts of nonsense at the New England Aquarium including acupuncture and laser therapy. As is obvious, I am no veterinarian, the only animal of which I have any understanding of anatomy and physiology is a human, but even with that background it is remarkable what is reported from New England. I used to say the ‘B’ students went into journalism; given the credulous reporting perhaps the standards have been lowered. They certainly have for marine biologists and veterinarians, who are evidently shortchanged in their education. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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A brief note on killing cancer cells in a dish

I am taking the Memorial Day holiday off. I will return next week (or even earlier if something comes up that I can’t resist blogging about). In the meantime, here’s a general principle that needs to be remembered in cancer research:

I would also add to that list: So does bleach. So does acid. So does alkali. So does pouring the media out of the dish and letting the cells dry out. So do a variety of lethal poisons. So does heat. So does cold. The list goes on.

The point, of course, is that it’s very easy to kill cells in a cancer dish. What is difficult is selectively killing cancer cells in the human body while not harming normal cells.

See you all next week!

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer

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Angelina Jolie, radical strategies for cancer prevention, and genetics denialism

I had been debating whether to blog about Angelina Jolie’s announcement last week in a New York Times editorial entitled My Medical Choice that she had undergone bilateral prophylactic mastectomy because she had been discovered to have a mutation in the BRCA1 gene that is associated with a very high risk of breast cancer. On the one hand, it is my area of expertise and was a big news story. On the other hand, it’s been nearly a week since she announced her decision, and the news story is no longer as topical as it was. Also, I’ve already written about it a couple of times on my not-so-super-secret other blog, making the division of blogging…problematic. So, if some of this is a bit repetitive to those who are also fans of my more—shall we say?—insolent persona, I apologize, but try to be patient. I will be doing more than just rehashing a couple of posts from last week (although there will unavoidably be at least a little of that), because there have been even more examples of reactions to Jolie’s announcement that provide what I like to consider “teachable moments.” I will start by asserting quite bluntly that in my medical opinion, from the information I have available, Angelina Jolie made a rational, science-based decision. How she went about the actual mechanics might have had some less than scientific glitches along the way (more about that later), but the basic decision to remove both of her breasts to prevent breast cancer associated with a BRCA1 mutation that she carried was quite reasonable and very defensible from a scientific standpoint.

One advantage of waiting nearly a week to write about this story is that it provided me with the opportunity to sit back and observe the reactions that Jolie’s decision provoked. One thing that I really didn’t expect (although in retrospect maybe I should have) is the pure denialism on display that genes have any effect whatsoever on cancer. I say “in retrospect I should have” because I’ve written at least a couple of times before about how quacks use and abuse the term “epigenetics” in the same way that they abuse the word “quantum” and how they seem to believe that wishing makes it so (through epigenetics, of course!) to the point where they believe that genetics is irrelevant to cancer. Indeed, they go far beyond that, asserting that, in essence, environment is all. From what I’ve been reading thus far, the second strongest strain of reaction to Jolie’s announcement (after revulsion at the “mutilation” of women that it represented to certain quacks) is pure denial that mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes portend such a high risk of ultimately developing breast cancer. This denial is often accompanied by conspiracy mongering about BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations being a “conspiracy” on the part of the “cancer industry” and Myriad Genetics & Laboratories, the company that holds the patents on BRCA1 and BRCA2, to increase genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Myriad happens to have a complete monopoly on BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing because of this patent and has been criticized for its high prices and stifling of competition. There is currently a case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding whether human genes are patentable under the law. I’m not a big fan of Myriad, and I’ll tell you why later. (Not that it matters; I’m stuck with them for now.) My personal distaste for Myriad Genetics aside, this sort of conspiracy mongering is part and parcel of the quack approach to denying the significance of BRCA1 mutations.

This denial is usually coupled with confident blather that Angelina Jolie didn’t need to undergo “disfiguring” surgery to prevent BRCA1-associated breast cancer but instead could have achieved the same—or even better!—risk reduction if only she had used this magic herb or that miracle supplement and making certain “lifestyle” changes. It’s utter nonsense, of course, but it’s everywhere.

Before I get to the reactions to Jolie’s announcement, let’s first take a look at what she did, why, and the science behind it.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Medical Ethics, Science and the Media

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Undermining the regulation of stem cell therapies in Italy: A warning for the future?

Stem cells are magical.

At least, if you listen to what docs and “practitioners” who run stem cell clinics in various parts of the world, usually where regulation is lax and money from First World clientele is much sought after, that’s what you could easily come to believe. Unfortunately, it’s not just Third World countries in which “stem cell clinics” have proliferated. For instance, they are not nearly uncommon enough in Europe. The example that is most troubling right now is Italy, and the reason is that there is currently a law being considered that would greatly weaken the regulation of stem cell therapies, so much so that on Friday I saw something that’s fairly rare: a major scientific journal published a pointed editorial about this new law. Specifically EMBO Journal published a commentary by an international group of scientists warning about the path that the government of Italy is considering entitled Regulation of stem cell therapies under attack in Europe: for whom the bell tolls.

Stem cell quackery is a very popular form of quackery these days because, well, stem cells are so magical-seeming. You can now find stem cell treatments offered for autism (one of which, offered at a clinic in Costa Rica, I’ve discussed before and involves injecting “stem cells” into the cerebrospinal fluid of autistic children for a cool $15,000). Kent Heckenlively, the man who took his daughter to the aforementioned Costa Rica clinic for this treatment, is not alone in subjecting his autistic child to such unproven uses of stem cells. Just a couple of months ago, a broadcast journalist in the Philippines named Karen Davila took her autistic son to the Villa Medica Clinic in Germany, which offers variants of stem cell therapy. One is known as “fresh cell therapy” and involves harvesting cells from lamb fetuses and injecting them into the patient. The other is called fat stem cell repair therapy, which is claimed to involve harvesting fat from the patient’s abdomen or thigh and then isolating “stem cells” from them to be injected back into the patient’s body.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Legal, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation

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A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind

In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:

…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.

He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears the Flu

Infectious diseases (ID), as those who read my not-so-secret other blog know, is without a doubt the most interesting speciality of medicine. Every interesting disease is infectious in etiology. What is cool about ID is that it has connections into almost every facet of human culture and history.

I note that at some point I have gone from being the young whippersnapper to the Grandpa Simpson at my hospitals and am one of the few who has been around long enough to be a repository of institutional memory. I remember what it was like 20 plus years ago, when no one consistently washed their hands, when all S. aureus (S. aureui?) were sensitive to beta-lactams and we wore an onion on our belt, as was the style of the day. Oh the changes I have seen.

Besides remembering the not so good old days of my professional career, ID keeps me reminded of how the world used to be in the past. Medicine used to be about the epidemics that would routinely sweep across the world. Polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and on and on. I occasionally see TB but thanks to modern medicine many of these scourges have mostly faded from medical practice in the US. Not a one, I might add, has faded due to the efforts of alt med practitioners.

Influenza still gives me pause. It is, as infections go, quite the tricky virus and it remains a difficult beast to treat and prevent. Which is a drag as it remains one of the more consistent causes of infectious morbidity and mortality. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Epidemiology, History, Science and Medicine

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Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes

In the past I have criticized evolutionary medicine for its tendency to rely on unverifiable “Just-So Stories,” but a new book has helped me appreciate what the best kind of evolutionary thinking can contribute to our understanding of medicine. Doves, Diplomats, and Diabetes: A Darwinian Interpretation of Type 2 Diabetes and Related Disorders by Milind Watve investigates diabetes from an evolutionary perspective, suggesting how it might have originated, why it persisted, and how it is related to survival advantages. Watve develops well-reasoned hypotheses that can be tested by examining their expected consequences. He believes it is impossible to understand metabolism without understanding behavioral ecology, and he makes a good case.

A reassessment of the evidence concerning Type II diabetes (T2D) reveals a number of paradoxes. Elevated blood glucose is the defining feature of T2D but controlling it doesn’t prevent all the complications of diabetes, and it doesn’t appear that elevated blood sugar could produce all the pathological changes of diabetes.  Insulin resistance is believed to be central to a cluster of deadly diseases in humans, but in other animals it has no adverse effects on health and even increases lifespan. Studying diabetes from an evolutionary perspective can shed light on such paradoxes. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Evolution

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Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

I write about a lot of depressing subjects, and sometimes a change of pace is welcome. Mary Roach, billed as “America’s funniest science writer,” has followed up on her earlier explorations of cadavers (Stiff), sex (Bonk), the afterlife (Spook), and survival on spaceships (Packing for Mars) with a new book entitled Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

Forget all that mythology about diet, detoxification, and 10-year-old hamburger accretions in the bowel. The reality of human digestive physiology is far more interesting and has the extra-added attraction of being true. And in Roach’s hands, often howlingly funny.  She is a hands-on investigative reporter who is ready to try anything; among other adventures she inserts her entire arm in a cow’s stomach. Her highly entertaining odyssey takes her to Igloolik to eat narwhal skin, to a dog food tasting lab in Missouri, to Minnesota to observe a fecal transplant, and to strange and exotic outposts at the cutting edge of science, populated by colorful characters. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, History

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