Apr 07 2016

Pig Heart Kept Alive in Baboon

xenofunAbout 3,500 heart transplants are performed worldwide each year. This is the standard of care treatment for end stage heart failure. However, more people need hearts than receive them. About half of the recipients of a donor heart have been on the waiting list for more than a year. About a third for more than two years.

In short, there are not enough hearts to go around. Artificial hearts exist, but only as a bridging technology – keeping people alive while on the transplant waiting list. Stem cell therapy looks promising as a treatment for heart failure, but also is years away. Growing hearts is probably decades away.

Genetically modifying animal hearts is probably the option for a human donor heart replacement that is closest to becoming a reality. Recently researchers report that they have made progress along those lines – keeping a pig heart alive in a baboon for over two years.

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Comments: 4

Apr 04 2016

The NCCIH Draft Strategic Plan

NCCIHThe National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), formerly the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and prior to that the Office of Alternative Medicine, is developing their strategic plan for 2016-2021. They are seeking public comment, and my colleagues and I at science-based medicine (SBM) will be sending it to them.

The NCCIH is a center at the National Institutes for Health (NIH), which uses federal money to fund biomedical research. The center is largely the child of senator Tom Harkin, who is enamored of alternative medicine (I will use the term CAM for convenience) and wanted a separate office (then center) at the NIH specifically to fund research into CAM therapies.

About his center and its purpose, Harkin has famously said:

One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short. It think quite frankly that in this center and in the office previously before it, most of its focus has been on disproving things rather than seeking out and approving.

If anything science should be tilted toward demonstrating that any new claim is false, and only ideas and claims that survive dedicated attempts to do so should gain tentative approval. Harkin gives away the game in this statement – that the purpose of NCCIH is to put a huge ideological thumb on the scale of medical science, to give special preference to exactly those claims in medicine which are least plausible, and then flip science on its head by seeking to approve them, rather than critically testing them.

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Apr 01 2016

Should We Hide From Aliens

transit-352Given the date today, I had to be careful. Is the Royal Institution investigating quantum astrology? No, but those Brits can be quite cheeky.

When I saw this headline, Lasers could ‘cloak Earth from aliens’ on the BBC website, I thought they might be having a laugh. The alternative was a bit of hyperbole in science news reporting, which is a daily occurrence. The paper on which the item is based was officially published on March 30, so I think it’s legit.

What’s going on here is that two astronomers, David M. Kipping, and Alex Teachey, did a thought experiment – what would it take to disguise the Earth from aliens using the transit method to discover the Earth? Continue Reading »

Comments: 22

Mar 31 2016

The Need for Improved Food Production

land useThere are two undeniable trends that impact global food production – increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is warming the planet, and the human population is growing. The former affects production, the latter demand. In both cases there are anti-scientific ideological groups hampering progress, and even denying that there is a problem.

By 2050 it is estimated that the world human population will be 9.7 billion. This means we will need to produce 87% more food than we produce today. Johannes Kromdijk and Stephen P. Long argue in a recent paper that we need to act now if we are going to avoid a serious food shortage. They argue we are “One crop breeding cycle from starvation.”

Rising CO2

Some who deny the reality of global climate change have argued that, even if CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere, who is to say it’s a bad thing? Plants breath CO2, so increasing CO2 should just increase plant growth.

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Comments: 62

Mar 29 2016

Engineering A Minimal Genome

Minimal genomeCraig Venter’s team has crossed another milestone in their quest to engineer artificial life – they have engineered a bacterium that can survive and reproduce with just 473 genes. This is the smallest genome of any free-living thing (so that does not include viruses).

The purpose of this is to create a minimal starting point for later genetic engineering. Venter says this minimal bacterium is like a frame onto which specific modules can be placed. He envisions a future in which you can have made-to-order genetically engineered bacteria in which you plug in specific functions.

The Basic Science

This research program is also interesting from a purely basic science perspective. The bacterium used in Venter’s research is Mycoplasma mycoides. The choice of a Mycoplasma bacterium was obvious, as the species in the wild with the smallest number of genes is the related Mycoplasma genitalium, which has 525 genes. The new bacterium has 52 fewer genes.

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Comments: 15

Mar 28 2016

Tribeca Film Festival Pulls Anti-Vaccine Film

tribecaThis has been a typical saga, one we have seen played out many times. An organization (company, institution, etc.) provides a venue for an irresponsible anti-science article, speaker, or film. There is then a public outcry that the venue is being exploited to promote pseudoscience. The organization initially defends their decision, then reconsiders. The author, speaker, director then cries “censorship.”

It’s a predictable script.

Recently the Tribeca Film Festival announced its list of movies it will be screening this year, and among them was Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a movie perpetuating the idea that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is covering up data that shows a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Orac discusses the content of the movie in detail, but here is a quick summary. The movie is produced by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced struck-off British doctor who published a study in the Lancet claiming evidence for a connection between MMR and autism. The paper was later retracted and found to be fraudulent.

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Comments: 4

Mar 22 2016

Fake Psychics Scam Billions

The Anything Can Happen Recurrence

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?

In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.

A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.  Continue Reading »

Comments: 69

Mar 21 2016

In Praise of Lab-Grown Meat

lab-grown-meatLab-grown meat now seems inevitable, although it is still hard to predict exactly how long it will take to become a popular consumer item. Here is a quick overview of what this is, and its potential to improve our food supply.

Lab grown meat involves taking muscle stem cells from animals, like pigs, chickens, or cows, and then growing them, well, in a lab. They can be grown in a large vat of nutrients.

What you end up with is not fully formed muscle, as if it were taken from an animal, but simply a mass of muscle cells. Animal muscles also contain fat, vessels, and connective tissue, which help give it its texture. For taste the fat marbling is probably the most important.

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Comments: 19

Mar 18 2016

Ioannidis – Evidence-Based Medicine Has Been Hijacked

In a recent commentary, framed as an open letter to David Sackett (the father of evidence-based medicine), John Ioannidis argues that EBM has been hijacked by various interests. He also clarifies his position in an interview with Retraction Watch.

Ioannidis hits many interesting points: EBM has become a way to market products and services, clinical studies are largely in the hands of corporations with vested interests, academics are under their own pressures which emphasize getting grant money, practitioners are likewise struggling to survive in an era of managed care, and quacks and charlatans are exploiting the whole mess.

It is an eye-opening roller-coaster ride, including many personal stories, through the mind of perhaps the most famous current critic of the industry of medical science. I agree with much of what he says, and in fact they coincide with a great deal of commentary here and at science-based medicine. He takes a more cynical and pessimistic tone than I would, but that is subjective.

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Comments: 10

Mar 17 2016

Is Everything You Think You Know Wrong?

dino-asteroidDoes sugar make kids hyper? Has science proven bumble bees can’t fly? Does the average person only use 10% of their brain capacity? Are routine multivitamins good for you? Were the dinosaurs killed off by an asteroid impact?

It is often observed that when a fact is accepted uncritically because, “everyone knows it to be true,” it is probably false. The answers to the above questions are no, no, no, probably not, and it’s more complicated than you think.

The best way to drive this home for many people is this – think of the one area of knowledge in which you have the greatest expertise. This does not have to be your job, it can be just a hobby. Now, how accurate are news reports that deal with your area of extensive knowledge? How much does the average person know? Does anyone other than a fellow enthusiast or expert ever get it quite right?

The universal experience (according to my informal survey over many years) is that the general public is full of misinformation and oversimplifications about your area of knowledge. Now extrapolate that experience to all other areas of knowledge. This means that you are full of misinformation and oversimplifications about every area in which you are not an expert.

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Comments: 28

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