Sexing research, Stem cells for the heart, Climate change on Fox News

Of Mice and Men

The paper showing that the presence of male but not female researchers increases the stress level of lab rodents and thereby alters experimental results set off an assortment of responses in me.

1. Jokey. For example, the observation that male researchers scare the crap out of mice is literally true and therefore irresistible. This because mice deposit more fecal boli when stressed than when not, a behavior that can be triggered by even so innocuous a stimulus as a t-shirt previously worn by a man. The evidence is a graph in the paywalled paper or the open-access replication at Vox in Susannah Locke’s post. (The just-right Mickey Mouse pic is from there, too.)

2. Feminist. My first thought being optimistic, based on hope: Cool, a fabulous economic justification for opening research to more women scientists because they won’t screw up the experiments like men do. And my second being empirical, based on historical experience: Oh no, they’ll turn women scientists into lab technicians and make them care for the animals.

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

Credit: Cory Doctorow/Flickr

3. Alarmed. Good grief, does this mean writing off decades worth of animal experiments? Senior author Jeffrey Mogil said he did the sex-effect research partly because such an effect had been long rumored, and while it’s a confounding effect, it’s not a fatal one. It should, though, mean changes in research practices, and the sex of the researchers should be noted in the Methods section of papers, he told David Grimm at ScienceNow.

But Grimm also quotes other scientists who wonder if these sex differences in personnel could be a reason labs often have difficulty replicating the work of others. Or whether they could affect clinical trials. Says one, “This could have an impact on just about everything.”

Mogil has speculated that the reason for this effect is evolutionary and probably triggered by pheromones detectable by other mammals of many species. A solitary male is likely to be on the hunt or defending turf, and that increases the fight-or-flight stress responses in those around him.

If Mogil is right about human males routinely producing stress in others just by being on the premises, then the effect on research could extend to many other lab animals besides rodents. And not just lab animals, pets as well, James Owens suggests at Weird and Wild.

Not to mention how it might illuminate social interactions in Homo sap.


Science blogging and grant proposals

Over the years I’ve heard scientists speak anxiously about whether blogging will affect their research careers for the worse, keep them from getting promotions and funding. They believe their colleagues often think blogging is a time-wasting drag on research and that bloggers are just not serious people. I suppose that’s why some of them–high-profile ones too–blog pseudononymously.

High profile UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen–that’s his real name–blogs at the well-known Tree of Life. He has finally broken his silence over a 2012 grant reviewer expressing doubt that he could lead a big new project given “his high time commitment to his blog.”

Eisen drafted a hot response at the time, but decided not to send it. He did consult the program officer, who assured him that the comment had no effect on the grant decision.

He says he’s now sorry he didn’t fire away immediately, and so he has posted the unsent draft, with redactions of pungent language. He really likes online activity, he says, and also thinks it contributes to his work.

I know what he means.


No balm for broken hearts?

The very fashionable notion of using stem cells to repair broken hearts suffered a double whammy this week. Which led the very reliable Larry Husten to wonder in a Forbes post, “A House Of Cards About To Fall?”

Husten was writing specifically about a new open-access paper from the British Medical Journal, a meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells as therapy for damaged hearts. It was published Tuesday (April 29.) The first word of the BMJ paper’s title is “Discrepancies,” which suggests, correctly, that it will not be friendly.

“Discrepancies” strikes me as a tactful term to describe the hundreds of internal contradictions in these papers. Át MedPageToday, Todd Neale tells us that, in 133 reports of 49 trials, the BMJ authors found 604 discrepancies, defined as “two (or more) reported facts that cannot both be true because they are logically or mathematically incompatible.”  What’s more–and this is the really juicy bit–the more “discrepancies” in a report, the more likely it was to claim positive results for stem cell treatments.

Husten concludes that “many of the most promising results in the field are illusory and that the potential benefits of stem cells to treat heart disease are probably far more modest than we’ve been led to believe. The study also raises disturbing questions about ethics and research conduct (and misconduct) in a high-flying field.”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, on that same day the Cochrane collaboration also came up with its meta-analysis of papers about bone marrow stem cells for heart repair, which ScienceInsider’s Jennifer Couzin-Frankel said analyzed many of the same trials covered in the BMJ paper.  The Cochrane paper was marginally more positive, reporting limply that there is “some evidence that stem cell treatment may be of benefit in people both with chronic ischaemic heart disease and with heart failure.” But, it said, the evidence is of low quality and highly variable. Not a ringing endorsement. The good news is that the procedure doesn’t seem to have killed many people.

Todd Neale’s post, which also reported on the Cochrane paper, quoted Clyde Yancy, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University and a past president of the American Heart Association, as saying that the studies are difficult to do, but at some point this question must be asked: “‘Do we know anything more now, are we any closer to the clinical application of these technologies than we were a decade ago?'” Yancy’s answer: “No.”

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Three-dimensional rendered microcomputed tomography of treated monkey heart 3 months after human embryonic stem cell injection. Arteries perfusing the graft are red. Other vessels are grey in the uninjured cardiac tissue and white within the graft. Credit: Veronica Muskheli

Hope springs eternal, though. Ian Sample at The Guardian (and others) reported on what the hed writer, sigh, called a “breakthrough”: the repair of damaged monkey hearts by injection with human embryonic stem cells. The paper was published Wednesday (April 30) in Nature.

The embryonic stem-cell treatment must be done soon after the heart attack, before scar tissue can form. The animals also developed irregular heart beats that disappeared eventually. Clinical trials could begin in four years.


You’ll be flabbergasted to hear that Fox News doesn’t want to discuss climate change.

Michael Moyer, a senior editor at Scientific American, was invited to appear on Fox News Wednesday (April 30) to discuss future tech trends. In a preliminary back-and-forth to decide on topics before the show, Moyer told a producer that a big trend would be dealing with climate change. The (emailed) reply,  “can we replace the climate change with something else?”   So they did, and Moyer blogged about the experience at Observations.

Business Insider then reported a Fox News denial, quoting a Foxy lady thus, “We worked closely with him and his team and there was never an issue on the topic of climate change,” Suzanne Scott, SVP of programming at Fox News, said in a statement. “To say he was told specifically not to discuss it, would be false.”

Except there is that email.

According to Jack Mirkinson at HuffPo, Fox News and its talking heads took their revenge yesterday (Thursday, May 1), indulging in Fox’s trademark name-calling. “Coward,” for one. What was cowardly about what Moyer did?

In his post, Moyer says Fox took the interview video down. If so, it is now back up. But if you’re expecting fireworks, you’ll be disappointed. Perfectly friendly. Not to say banal.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

On the left, Michael Moyer. On the right, all others. This is, after all, Fox News. HT for the screenshot to TPM.

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