Archive for October, 2010

Oct 15 2010

Do Mummies Get Cancer?

File this one under – massive and unjustified speculation based upon limited data.

There are multiple news reports of a recent study looking at mummies to see if there is any evidence of cancer. The results:

Professor Rosalie David, a biomedical Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, and a colleague, Professor Michael Zimmerman, searched for evidence of cancer in hundreds of mummies, fossils, and ancient medical texts. One might say that the silence was deafening.

This was an interesting study in medical forensics, but I do not think it is so obvious how to interpret it. The spin in the media is this:

The mummies don’t lie. David concluded that their findings, “along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message—cancer is man made and something that we can and should address.”

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29 responses so far

Oct 14 2010

You Got Drugs In My Weight Loss Supplement

This is a depressingly old scam – centuries old. Snake oil is marketed to the public with whatever image is considered fashionable at the time, although the “natural and wholesome” image is most common. In the 19th century there were many elixirs and tonics that claimed to be not only “natural”, but derived from either exotic tropical locations or the wisdom of native cultures.

But at the same time these products included ingredients that were known powerful drugs. Alcohol was common, but narcotics and cocaine were also used. In the US the FDA ended the patent medicine industry and marginalized this practice, but the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 has brought it back. The modern deregulated supplement industry is a recapitulation of the patent medicine industry of a century ago.

Now we have supplements, including weight loss supplements, that claim to be herbal and “all natural” that are secretly cut with pharmaceuticals, some of which are illegal drugs. A recent analysis of 81 weight loss supplements marketed in Hong Kong found that 61 of them contained two or more pharmaceutical agents, and two supplements contained six different drugs.

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8 responses so far

Oct 12 2010

Vaccine Suit to be Heard by Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court is about to hear a case involving an alleged vaccine injury. This one does not involve thimerosal, MMR, or autism – it involves neurological injury allegedly from an older version of the DTP vaccine. However, this case would have implications for the many autism-related claims being made.

The case is not about the facts of the claim – whether or not the DTP actually caused any injury in this case, that of Hannah Bruesewitz, but rather about the vaccine court and the ability of parents to bring suits against vaccine manufacturers.

In 1986 the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act created a special court, the vaccine court, the purpose of which was to provide an alternate method for determining who deserves compensation for a possible vaccine injury. The vaccine court functioned to protect both citizens and vaccine manufacturers. It provides an expedited route to compensation, with a generously low threshold for evidence. For certain listed injuries, compensation is automatic.

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26 responses so far

Oct 11 2010

Elixir of Life

In an SGU interview with Christopher Hitchens he commented that journalists tend to have a limited pallet of story themes from which they choose, and then they conform the story to the chosen theme. Stories always need to be about something, such as corporate greed or government malfeasance, so that is the story that is told – regardless of the pesky facts.

Bad science journalism works that way also. That is why we can joke about common cliches, such as “Missing Link Discovered,” “Scientists Baffled,” and “It turns out everything we thought we knew was wrong.”

One such science journalism meme is the “Elixir of Life” – a scientific “breakthrough” (there are no advances, only breakthroughs) that offers the hope of extended life or a panacea of sorts. These stories often follow another theme – taking an esoteric bit of research that is very preliminary and/or has very narrow implications, and then pulling from that research the most extreme speculative future application. That is why every basic life-science “breakthrough” could “potentially lead to a cure.”

To make matters worse, science press releases are increasingly engaging in this kind of rhetoric, and there seems to be a proliferation of lazy science journalists who are happy to pass along these press releases without further investigation.

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11 responses so far

Oct 07 2010

The Nature of Consensus

Anti-scientific creationist propaganda is always a good source of unintentional irony. Recently at the Disco-Tute’s propaganda blog they posted a piece about scientific consensus, prompted by a recent study on the public reaction to scientific consensus.

The study, by Dan Kahan et al., finds that the public may be sharply divided on factual questions about which the scientific community largely agrees, like evolution, global warming, and nuclear waste. The authors explored the reason for this disconnect and found that members of the public tend to form their beliefs about the existence of a scientific consensus based upon their cultural views.

This certainly reflects common experience – the acceptance or denial of the existence of a scientific consensus on man-made global warming tracks with political ideology. It seems unlikely that individuals are mostly making independent and rational assessments of the scientific evidence, and just happen to be coming up with the conclusion that is favored by the ideological culture in which they are embedded. It is a common conceit, however, that one’s own views are rationally evidence-based, and it is the other side that is ideological.

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31 responses so far

Oct 06 2010

A Parent’s Approach to Science Education

Published by under Education,Skepticism

The recent news that US science education is lagging sparked an interesting discussion on the SGU, which in turn inspired a great deal of feedback from listeners. Among the many e-mails we received was one asking what steps I take to improve the science education of my own daughters.

Fixing the education system, while necessary, is difficult and even in the best case scenario will take time. Many parents want to know what they can do in the meantime to increase the odds that their children will grow to be not only scientifically literate, but passionate life-long learners of science.

I don’t have anything to offer except my own personal musings and experience. Much of what I do is fairly obvious, but if nothing else it may inspire some parents to take a more active role. There is compelling evidence that parental involvement is a critical component of a child’s education, science or otherwise. The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has a list of some references, along with some practical advice of their own.

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16 responses so far

Oct 05 2010

More on B Vitamins and Dementia

Last month I reported on a small study that purported to show that supplementation with the B-vitamins – B12, B6 and folate, were associated in a small study with a decrease in the amount of brain atrophy over a two year period. There were some problems with this study, but it is plausible that a subset of the population, if they are functionally low in one or more of these B vitamins, may neurologically benefit from correction through supplementation.

I, and others, pointed out, however, that the study did not look at cognitive function, which is a more relevant clinical outcome. It only looked at brain atrophy as measured with an MRI scan, and it is not clear if the results are clinically significant. I suggested the need for further research with more clinically relevant outcomes.

Well, I did not have to wait long. A couple of weeks later a study was published in Neurology by Ford et al that looked at cognitive function and risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Here are the methods from the abstract:
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2 responses so far

Oct 04 2010

ADHD and Genetics

Published by under Neuroscience

A new study published in the Lancet purports to show a potential genetic link to ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). While the genetic link found in this study has been somewhat overhyped in the media, the results are interesting.

The main problem with media reporting is that they tend to oversimplify the concept of a genetic disorder. The worst offenders speak of “the gene” for whatever is being discussed, like ADHD. There are purely genetic disorders that are the result of a mutation in a single gene, but more often diseases and disorders that have a genetic component are the complex result of multiple genes and their interaction with the environment. Therefore there is no single gene for ADHD, autism, migraines, obesity or other complex condition.

Saying that there is a “genetic link” to a disorder is more reasonable, but always must be put into context. What this study shows is an increased risk of copy number variants (CNVs) in people with a confirmed diagnosis of ADHD. A CNV is either a deletion or duplication of genetic material. The researchers found that 78 out of 1047 control had such CNVs (7%), while 57 out of 366 subjects with ADHD did (15%). This was a statistically significant increase. Further, CNV were more likely to occur on genes previous associated with both autism and schizophrenia (and therefore likely to be involved in brain development).

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19 responses so far

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