Homo sap is now a GMO. Shall we edit the genes of human embryos?

Well, the rumors that scientists in China have been messing around with fully predictable genetic engineering of human embryos, discussed here at On Science Blogs a month ago, turn out to be true. Fully predictable hell has broken out. More will, predictably, follow.

The good news is that, despite a considerable amount of previously reported success with the gene editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 in cell lines and even in living creatures, these early attempts on human embryos ended up a mess. It’s good news because that failure may give us a bit of breathing room to figure out what should be done about genetic tinkering with an embryo that will affect that person-to-be’s descendants. Or, more practically, whether anything can be done, given that these new technologies are (relatively) cheap and simple to use, and portable.

The researchers, at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, took care to short-circuit ethical objections by doing this early work in 86 human embryos fertilized imperfectly during in vitro fertilization, embryos that could not survive and would normally have been thrown out. Their target was the gene for ß-thalassaemia. Mutant versions of the gene are responsible for a range of inherited blood disorders and can be fatal.

The procedure worked properly in only a handful of cases. Most of the time the new genetic material inserted itself in the wrong place in the genome. The process also created mosaics: embryos where the desired change was present in only some of its cells, not in all. It is not known how using embryos that were abnormal to begin with affected the outcome.

Despite this unsettling start, in principle there is no obvious reason why, eventually, normal human embryos cannot be edited successfully, as has been done in monkeys. I wrote about the monkey work here more than a year ago.

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming were the first primates whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The work was reported in February 2014. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

Sister macaques Ningning and Mingming were the first primates whose genomes have been monkeyed with using CRISPR/Cas9 technology. The work was reported in February 2014. Credit: Cell, Niu et al.

The new paper appeared in the Springer journal Protein & Cell and is open-access. Why, you ask, not in Nature or Science, which loooooove hot papers? These top journals do want hot papers, they do, but apparently don’t want them as hot as this one. Both journals turned it down–on, it is said, ethical grounds.

Is this an unethical paper? I’d say no, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.  My guess is that the journals just decided they didn’t need the hassles the paper is inviting. The published paper’s metadata shows that Springer took only one day to decide otherwise. On April Fool’s Day, in fact. Try not to read anything into that date.

Protein & Cell‘s Impact Factor can be guessed at by noting that the paper was published April 18 but appears, astonishingly, to have languished unnoticed and unheralded for a few days. Does Springer have a PR department? Or is it just . . . shy?

Rounding up blog posts about the new human gene-editing paper

The paper has generated an extraordinary amount of media attention, much of it repetitive.  At Ars Technica, John Timmer provides a straightforward and mostly straight science account of the work described in the new paper and the technical problems it emphasizes. Tia Ghose explains some of the technical difficulties the researchers ran into–and potential solutions–at LiveScience. Ghose also notes rumors that several other labs are at work on human embryo editing.

Critics fall mostly into one of two camps. Some want no genetic work done on human embryos period, especially work that could affect future generations. Others would like to find ways to make preliminary exploratory research on human gene editing acceptable but hold off–for how long is not clear–on any attempts to apply this work to embryos intended to survive. The Chinese work, carried out on crippled embryos that would otherwise have been discarded, seems to me be an example–and, by those criteria, perfectly ethical.

Rob Stein, at Shots, focuses on critical assessments of the work, emphasizing how the failures the Chinese describe demonstrate that human embryo editing is far from any clinical applications. Genome Web summarized several other negative comments.

Razib Khan urges everybody to calm down at Gene Expression, noting that the failures mean that human embryo gene editing is far from being a consumer product. He says the real danger will be something like “a government or society [that] isn’t bound by normal human ethical standards, and begins to basically treat their population like livestock. As is usually the case the major issues looming are not scientific, but have to do with human volition.”

At The Loom, Carl Zimmer’s explainer begins with the new Chinese paper. But the post is really a walk through the history of attempts to fix human disease with genetic engineering, linking to a number of Zimmer’s past pieces for amplification.

Homo sap becomes a GMO

Chris Gyngell’s post at Practical Ethics comes down squarely in favor of human germline editing on grounds that it offers immense potential benefits. People who oppose it Gyngell dismisses as emotional rather than rational.

Gyngell argues that the scientists who have called, respectively, for a germline editing moratorium in Nature and a pause in Science fail to show why “general concerns about this technology warrant such extraordinary disapproval, while the same concerns in other technologies are ignored.” Why, Gyngell wants to know, does germline editing deserve special attention?

Because, Paul Knoepfler responds sternly, germline editing involves “experimentally de novo creating designer babies with gene edits that the resulting genetically modified people could then pass along to future generations forever with unknown consequences.” Knoepfler is a stem-cell researcher and passionate blogger who has come up with his own plan that would permit germline gene editing to go forward as research but stop short of attempting to bring a genetically modified baby into existence.

Wired’s Nick Stockton has collected comments from scientists and ethicists who have been involved in the Nature and Science commentaries calling for human germline editing to stop altogether or at least slow down. These commentaries were discussed here at On Science Blogs last month.

Hank Greely, of Stanford Law School, a co-author of the Science call for a pause in the research, told Stockton he thinks the Chinese researchers have nothing to be ashamed of. But the fact that the work was doable, however imperfectly, “makes it even more urgent to have a societal conversation about how far to go.”

I love the flag-waving self-absorption of Wired’s hed, “America Needs to Figure Out the Ethics of Gene Editing Now,” with its implication that it is this country’s job to make ethical rules on gene editing for the world. It’s going to be hard enough to make rules for the US. Doing human embryo research with government money is against the law here, but there are no restrictions whatever on what companies and other private organizations can do.

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Concussion, TBI, human evolution, Neanderthal DNA, blogging news

Concussion, traumatic brain injury, and life’s hard knocks

Search “concussion” in the media and you’ll come away thinking hard knocks to the head are chiefly a problem for kids and football players (or kid football players.) Last fall the blog of the Dana Foundation, which focuses on brain research and education, called it the “NFL Concussion Crisis.”

But as Fred Powledge points out at NPR’s blog Shots, concussion is a far more serious problem for old folks, of whom he is one. They have the highest rates of traumatic brain injury-related hospitalizations and deaths.

Powledge’s is a very personal account of his very personal concussion, which landed him in hospitals for two weeks last fall and is still irritating his life today. Recovery from concussion is s-l-o-w. A writer, he complains particularly about a frustrating increase in typo production.

This MRI of a human brain reveals injury (in red) to the brain’s coverings following mild head trauma. Credit: Lawrence Latour, NIH.

This MRI of a human brain reveals injury (in red) to the brain’s coverings following mild head trauma. Credit: Lawrence Latour, NIH.

Christie Aschwanden’s post at Fivethirtyeight is–predictably since the new home of Nate Silver’s data journalism enterprise is ESPN–about concussion in football. But she points out that “we still don’t have a way of definitively diagnosing concussion. Do we even know what a concussion is?” (Side note: This is an opportunity to point out that Aschwanden has recently joined Fivethirtyeight as lead science writer, boosting the site’s science-writing cred at least 538% after last year’s inauspicious start, described here at On Science Blogs.)

What concussion is is what it is now called formally: TBI, traumatic brain injury–or, in Powledge’s case, MTBI, mild traumatic brain injury. Although when it happens to you, he notes, MTBI doesn’t seem so mild. Not that the rename resolves much of concussion’s mystery, since what happens after depends on the severity and frequency of the blows that cause it, and what parts of the brain are traumatized, and the person affected’s general state of being.

We are sure to be hearing more about concussion in older folks over the next couple of years. That’s because Hillary Clinton, now age 67, suffered TBI after a fall in 2012. She spent 3 days in the hospital and, Lenny Bernstein reports at To Your Health, is fully recovered. But the episode will certainly surface as the 2016 Presidential election campaign roars on. I’m expecting rumors of permanent brain damage.

Why is the human skull so hard? Bro science knows.

The subject of concussion permits me an excuse to drag in a favorite topic, paleontology, specifically the evolution of the human skull. At his blog Laelaps, Brian Switek tackles two University of Utah researchers who have argued that “Hands evolved to punch faces. Faces evolved to take punches.” Switek points out that the idea that hands can be weapons, therefore they evolved to be weapons, is a post hoc fallacy common in arguments about evolution.

He notes that the researchers didn’t look for signs of broken facial bones or blunt-force trauma on skulls of early humans like Australopithecus, nor did they “try to model how early human skulls would have reacted to the stresses of an incoming fist. The entire argument is simply that australopithecine skulls look like they could take a punch. . . This is bro science – dudes pummeling each other driving human evolution.”

Pardon me while I take a moment to happy dance around the delicious notion of bro science.

Switek also notes that although early humans like the Australopithecine Lucy were bipedal, their hands were anatomically rather like those of their tree-living ancestors.

i.e., they couldn’t make fists.

Pow, right in the kisser!

I also want to drag in this Charles Choi report at Live Science on the oldest sample of Neandertal DNA, dated at around 150,000 years ago. Not a complete genome, or at least not yet.

Nothing to do with concussions, although it does involve a human skull.  This is basically an excuse to run this extraordinary photo of the still-buried Neandertal, known as Altamura Man, who supplied the DNA. He is encrusted in calcite formations.

The skull of Altamura Man, a Neandertal buried in an Italian cave and dated at about 150,000 years BP. The rest of his body is encased in calcite formations. Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

The skull of Altamura Man, a Neandertal buried in an Italian cave and dated at about 150,000 years BP. The rest of his body is encased in calcite formations. Credit: Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage

McKenna moves

Speaking of professional moves by really good science writers, Maryn McKenna, she of Wired’s Superbug blog and many other professional highlights, has moved to Phenomena, the mini-blog network at National Geographic. Her new blog, Germination, sounds as if it will still be mostly microbial. The focus, she says, will be on “public health, global health, and food production and policy—and ancient diseases, emerging infections, antibiotic resistance, agricultural planning, foodborne illness, and how we’ll feed and care for an increasingly crowded world.”

 

HealthNewsReview rebirth and relaunch

And while I’m up and announcing novelty, the venerable HealthNewsReview, veteran vetter of medical journalism, is celebrating its 9th anniversary with a spiffy web site redesign and relaunch. Gary Schwitzer’s introductory post recaps some history.

HealthNewsReviewers have analyzed nearly 2000 medical news stories so far in the blog’s almost-decade. You will probably not be surprised to learn that only 14% of them deserved 5 stars, but I guess it’s somewhat encouraging that only 4% of them got 0 stars.

A particularly helpful–and terrifying–new feature is the decision to take on press releases as well as articles. This makes terrific sense, since so many so-called science and medical articles simply rehash the release, and often just reprint it verbatim–frequently without acknowledging that it is a release and sometimes even having the chutzpah to add a staffer’s byline. Schwitzer explains the reasoning for adding analysis of releases here, summarized neatly under the hed “News releases can lead media like sheep – hiding key problems.”

Exhibit A is a multi-author bashing of a University of Wisconsin release on use of a prostate cancer drug to slow memory loss in women with Alzheimer’s disease. The verdict: “Misleading to the point of deception . . . Yet it appears that journalists and other web producers bit on the bait and followed the lead of the news release unquestioningly.”

Oy. Scary. But much needed.

 

About back-patting bloggery

Linking to posts by friends and colleagues is common among bloggers, including some famous and highly regarded science bloggers, naming no names. I’ve been blogging about blogging weekly for nearly 6 years, but have been pretty restrained in this practice.  If I do say so myself, and I do. However, this makes two weeks in a row. Last week it was Joel Shurkin’s fine Inside Science series on the discouragements of Alzheimer’s disease research. This week it is Fred Powledge’s insightful account of his concussion, aka mild traumatic brain injury, at NPR’s Shots.

Some readers will have noticed that Fred Powledge and I have the same last name.  That’s no accident. Full disclosure: Fred Powledge is my first husband.

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Alzheimer’s disease update: gloomy

The great plague is coming

The lede on Joel Shurkin’s three-part post on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias at Inside Science is stark and discouraging: “The great plague is coming. After 100 years of research and billions of dollars spent around the world, we still have no protection and there is none on the horizon.”

Full disclosure, Joel and I are old friends and colleagues. But I am being completely objective when I tell you that he is an exceptional science writer with a venerable record, and that this series is an enormously useful explainer about what’s going on (and not going on) with research on this most horrifying of the diseases of aging.

One reason for the laggard pace is that there is still no consensus about how Alzheimer’s develops. Researchers have long been at war over which process is more important for destroying the brain in Alzheimer’s, the tau protein tangles or beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain.

My nonquantitative impression is that beta amyloid has captured majority opinion. But the partisans of tau are neither cowed nor silent, and what seems like a significant new Mayo Clinic paper comes down on that side too.

It reports that studies of 3600 postmortem brains show that dysfunctional tau protein drives cognitive decline and memory loss. And it argues that beta amyloid, the other toxic protein that characterizes Alzheimer’s and builds up as dementia progresses, is not the primary culprit. Tau tangles first appear in the brain stem sometimes as early as childhood, whereas beta amyloid is found later in the cortex, a decade or more before cognition declines are obvious. Accumulations of both, the researchers say, probably occur in parallel, “eventually resulting in incompletely understood crosstalk between the pathologies.”

Writing at In The Pipeline about the new paper arguing that pathology from tau is more important than beta amyloid, Derek Lowe points out that, even if the finding holds up, it’s always possible “that amyloid-centric approaches could still be of benefit (just as it’s possible that amyloid still is the real driver of the disease state). But neither of these are sure things. Alzheimer’s has no sure things.”

Alzheimer’s therapies

As Joel Shurkin explains, drug therapies currently used for Alzheimer’s are pretty close to useless. A certain excitement has attended a new experimental drug from Biogen, an excitement especially among investors, who have driven Biogen’s stock price up significantly.

At the HuffPost Science Blog, Howard Fillit, of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, calls Biogen’s baby a (sigh) breakthrough. It reportedly reduces amyloid plaques in the brain and improves cognitive function. Note that so far there is only is a very early study involving just 166 patients. The drug, called aducanumab, is not a pill. It’s a monoclonal antibody vaccine that must be administered intravenously, probably once a month.

In another In the Pipeline post, Lowe tries to be hopeful about the drug, but honesty forces him to pick some nits. He notes that every other antibody trial has failed, and it will be years before Stage III clinical trials can tell us whether aducanumab can really make a difference in Alzheimer’s.

At HealthNewsReview, Alan Cassels picks more than a few nits, not impressed with media coverage of the Biogen breakthrough and deeply skeptical of any therapy focusing on getting rid of amyloid plaques. “Alzheimer’s drug discovery has sadly experienced an almost universal failure rate of preclinical and Phase I, II, and III testing,” he says, reproducing a startling infographic from a 2010 Nature journal to demonstrate the point.

This recent infographic from Nature Reviews Drug Discovery suggests how badly Alzheimer's drugs have done compared with other pharma efforts, Cassels points out at HealthNewsReview. The funnels illustrate the average number of compounds needed at each stage of drug development in order to get one drug approved. http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2015/03/journalists-fire-another-silver-bullet-at-alzheimers/

This recent infographic from Nature Reviews Drug Discovery suggests how badly Alzheimer’s drugs have done compared with other pharma efforts, Cassels points out at HealthNewsReview. The funnels illustrate the average number of compounds needed at each stage of drug development in order to get one drug approved.
http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2015/03/journalists-fire-another-silver-bullet-at-alzheimers/

The graphic is so startling that I’m reproducing it here (and providing a link to a more legible version) to demonstrate how much more effort has gone into Alzheimer’s drugs than into drug therapies for other diseases–with essentially nothing to show for it. Given the billions in public money expended, Cassels says, you’d think there would be a taxpayer revolt.

Gary Schwitzer follows up by thrashing CBS for its reports on “promising” “silver bullets” for Alzheimer’s that are apparently not Biogen’s bullet. Although as Schwitzer points out, it’s hard to tell from the pieces themselves, which lack essential information of this sort.

And can we please  PLEASE stop with the silver bullets? Guys, the correct cliché is  magic bullets. M-A-G-I-C. The association to silver bullets is the Lone Ranger, not disease therapies.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s

This disorder takes a very long time to work its evils. Even if good treatments are developed, they are likely to be useless unless they can be applied early enough to halt brain disintegration. Even slowing Alzheimer’s down could contribute significantly to making life less miserable for patients and their families–not to mention saving billions of health care bucks.

Joel concludes his series with a focus on prospects for good ways of diagnosing Alzheimer’s (and other dementias) before–ideally long before–the brain becomes a wreck. There are two main approaches, he says: imaging and biomarkers.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging can apparently see bad proteins like amyloid and tau in living brains. Testing spinal fluid–not fun at all for the patient–can detect the proteins too. Brit scientists have developed a blood test they claim can predict, with 87% accuracy, development of Alzheimer’s disease within in a year among people with mild cognitive impairment. A reliable blood test would be an extraordinary advance.

The test with the most potential, Joel says, is known as A4, and studies on it are just beginning. The researchers will recruit 1100 high-risk but presymptomatic subjects, using PET imaging to try to find evidence of amyloid in their brains. The drug they’re testing, solanezumab, is said to reduce amyloid.

But wait, there’s more. At the NIH Director’s Blog, Francis Collins has just enthused over saracatinib, a not-very-effective cancer drug that AstraZeneca had shelved. Yale researchers have resurrected saracatinib and are studying it for potential utility in Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer's brain pathology illustrated using fluorescent microscopy, which reveals both the Tau protein neurofibrillary tangles (flame-shaped structures) and amyloid plaque pathology (rounded structures.) The warmer colors indicate amyloid accumulation in living brains. Credit: Mayo Clinic

Alzheimer’s brain pathology illustrated using fluorescent microscopy, which reveals both the Tau protein neurofibrillary tangles (flame-shaped structures) and amyloid plaque pathology (rounded structures.) The warmer colors indicate amyloid accumulation in living brains. Credit: Mayo Clinic

And then there are the researchers who say ultrasound treatments fully restored the memories of 75% of its study subjects.

Who were mice.

Cassels assures us that no, this is not an item from The Onion.

At Neurologica, though, the normally skeptical Steven Novella sounds borderline excited about the ultrasound work, which he hails as a novel and noninvasive treatment. He leavens this unusual stance, though, with his native caution. He warns journalists that mice are not people, and mouse models of Alzheimer’s are not perfect duplicates of human disease because they are definitely associated with amyloid accumulation. Which is, as we have seen, still in dispute for humans.

I guess Novella hadn’t read John Timmer’s post at Ars Technica. Timmer tells of a similar experiment that reversed Alzheimer’s symptoms in mice.

Using a cellphone.

That’s not an Onion item either.

How to prevent Alzheimer’s disease

If reliable diagnosis and successful treatment are long-distance prospects at best, what of preventing this brain-destroyer?

You’ll be relieved to know that, according to some, it’s easy-peasy.

At HuffPo, Carolyn Gregoire reports that the MIND diet cuts your Alzheimer’s risk by 50%. MIND co-mingles the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH hypertension diet: heavy on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, no red meat, etc., plus a glass of wine.  At Big Think, Natalie Shoemaker is into leafy greens for Alzheimer’s prevention.

And then there’s exercise. Deric’s MindBlog notes that the “modest” effects of exercise aren’t really so modest: substantial reductions in all-cause mortality and a 35% or more reduction in risk of cognitive decline in the nondemented.

At Science of Us, Melissa Dahl brings us news of Klotho’s ability to protect against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s (even, reportedly, among people with evidence of the disease in their brains at autopsy.) You’ll be wanting to know what Klotho is. An anti-aging protein, sometimes acting as a hormone.

And how do you get more Klotho? Aerobic exercise!

And finally, caffeine reportedly reduces beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain.

Needless to say, the evidence that these nostrums can prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease ranges from rickety to near-invisible. OTOH, they probably won’t hurt. And of course we should all be eating right and exercising and drinking coffee anyway.

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More herbal supplement regulation? Plus scientific April Foolery

REGULATION OF HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS IS A SCAM. BUT YOU KNEW THAT.

Steven Novella reports at Neurologica on a nice piece of investigative science journalism about government (non)regulation of the supplement industry at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

CBC researchers created a fake treatment for fever and pain in children and submitted paperwork to the Canadian government for a Natural Product License. This part is particularly wonderful: the centerpiece of the application was pages copied from a 1902 homeopathic reference book. It took five months, but the government approved the fantasy product as “safe and effective.”

Novella’s inarguable point in this juicy and readable post is that the Canadian government has issued “a license to lie to the public about a health product.”

That situation is not much different in the US, of course. But I wonder ever so tentatively if there’s a chance that we might possibly perhaps be creeping slowly toward improved regulation of the $33 billion supplement industry.

Two reasons. No, three reasons.

First, GNC moved quickly to become first of four giant retailers to settle and seek to rise above recent accusations of selling herbal supplements lacking the herb claimed on the labels. The headline accusations came a few weeks ago after investigations by the New York State attorney general.

GNC has promised what Anahad O’Connor at the NYT Well blog called “sweeping new testing procedures on its herbal products that far exceed quality controls mandated under federal law.” GNC is saying it will use DNA barcoding–shorthand for firmly identifying plants by the specific DNA characteristic of the species–to make sure what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle.

DNA barcoding is the type of testing the New York investigations used to argue that the claimed herbs were absent from the supplements it tested. There seems to be a legitimate question about whether this is the right kind of test to use on some kinds of supplements–for example, extracts, which are so heavily processed as to destroy DNA. I wrote about the DNA barcoding problem here at On Science Blogs a few weeks ago.

In fact, that’s what GNC claimed at first, that its extracts were perfectly kosher but, because of processing, DNA-free. So I’m puzzled about why all of a sudden the company is vowing to use DNA barcoding to demonstrate its virtue.

snake-oil-bottle-cropped-label

Pieter Cohen, Harvard Med, is a longtime critic of the supplement industry but told me that DNA barcoding is not always the right test. He told Julia Belloz at Vox that it’s about time a supplement purveyor is making sure the label accurately describes the content. “What’s amazing is that it has taken 20 years for a major retailer to say they will fully respect the law.” OTOH, the agreement does nothing, he points out, to make sure that what’s in the bottle is safe and/or does what it promises to do.

Note that GNC’s vows apply only to its own store brands, not other brands it sells. This is quite a smart marketing move. If it can burnish its reputation as the trustworthy place to buy supplements, that will help justify the often-higher prices it charges.

Second, the list of state attorneys general that have joined with New York in asking Congress to investigate the herbal supplements industry has now grown to 14. Not that anything will come of it. Particularly with this Congress. But it’s a place to start, the beginnings of a ToDo list, and, I hope, a way of keeping this issue in the news.

Medicine-free medicine

The third reason I am slightly hopeful about cleaning up the supplements industry is that  the US Food and Drug Administration will soon be holding a two-day meeting (Webcast!) on regulation of homeopathic products.  It’s come one, come all as speakers, so expect a circus.

And what are homeopathic products? Let’s just say that there would have been no point in the New York State attorney general’s office testing any homeopathic product to see if it contained its claimed ingredients. That’s because homeopathy’s proud boast is that homeopathic medicaments are diluted so severely that nothing is left other than what Novella calls “mysterious vibrations or implausible and highly fanciful water chemistry.” (This from a delightful 2009 post defining homeopathy.)

It does raise a definitional question also, at least for me: can a homeopathic product fairly–or legally–be classified as an herbal supplement if the whole point is that it contains no herb?

You might think that the FDA is starting with an easy target: what could be more vulnerable than a medicine that claims to be medicine-free? But you would be wrong. This is not fringe stuff.

Case in point: a homeopathic asthma medication not only sold at Target, but sold under the Target house brand with the (in this case ironic) name of Up&Up. Is this a record for expensive bottled water: $127.92 per pint?

target homeopathy med

See the post by Scott Gravura at Science-based Medicine for many details. Gravura points out that homeopathic asthma meds are also available at Walgreen’s and online. (The Walgreen’s item bests Target’s bottled water price: $184 per pint.) Gravura’s link to an online site for an asthma med goes to Amazon, but as I write the link lands on the dreaded Error 404 Not Found.

Only a couple weeks ago, FDA issued a warning against OTC homeopathic asthma medications.  Perhaps Amazon is better at keeping up with the news than Walgreen’s is.

And I guess this is the place to note that both Target and Walgreen’s (along with Walmart) were among the four big retailers outed in the NYState AG investigation. These three have yet to say much of anything, let alone attempt to get out in front of the accusations as GNC is doing so smartly.

APRIL FOOLISH?

Was anybody, even an eighth grader, fooled by this week’s zoology paper in Nature? The one arguing that, thanks to global warming, dragons are on the way back? Even though it was co-authored by so legendary a biological scientist as Robert M. May? Even though the cover date of the journal issue was April 2, not April 1?

I doubt it. But at the SciAm editor’s blog Observations, Lee Billings calls for a moratorium on the scientific publishing tradition of April Fool jokes. Billings argues that the tradition fosters distrust of science.

Billings’s prime evidence is an undoubtedly searing personal experience. As a kid, Billings accepted as gospel a Discover magazine article about a purported new elementary particle as big as a bowling ball, wrote a report about it in 8th grade, and got an A. (So much for science literacy among Middle School teachers in Greenville, SC.)

Attempting a repeat performance the following year in a freshman science class–led, I am relieved to report, by a teacher who seemed to have some grasp of the subject–Billings was humiliated beyond recounting when the teacher pointed out the April cover date of the Discover issue.

Of course such an experience would be more than devastating to the tender unformed psyche of a high-school freshman. I’m not sure it’s enough to convince me that scientific April Fool’s jokes should be banned because some people don’t get the joke.

OTOH, science April Fool efforts are sometimes so abstruse as to let few readers–even sophisticated SciAm readers–in on the joke. SciAm Editor Phil Yam last year put together a brief history of the magazine’s April foolery that included some examples.

It’s also true that April Fool items, science and otherwise, are often lame and perhaps should be done away with on grounds that, by and large, they are just not funny. Larry Husten tells us at JWatch about a JAMA Internal Medicine paper proffering data to back up the adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Regular apple eaters had fewer doctor visits than those who were, um, less regular.

Although–this is, I concede, pretty cute in a very specialized way–when subjected to multivariate analysis, the Apple Effect turned out to be nonsignificant.

 

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Do AA and other 12-step programs work? Does breastfeeding raise IQ?

Do 12-step programs for addiction treatment work?

Are 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous effective treatments for addiction? That long-time dispute has just popped up again, prompted mostly by an Atlantic article with the click-worthy title “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Gabrielle Glaser’s central argument is that there are other addiction therapies that work, but the 12-step programs are just not based on science. It’s a reasonable point historically. For one thing, many 12-step studies have tended to ignore a crucial problem in research design: selection bias. It’s reasonable to think that people in AA, NA, etc joined because they were especially motivated to quit. Members are probably not a random sample of addicts.

alcoholics anonymous

But Jesse Singal’s riposte to Glaser at Science of Us argues semi-persuasively that there may be recent data showing that 12-step programs can be effective.

Glaser emphasized the equivocal nature of the science collected in the 2006 meta-analysis in a Cochrane review, which found “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.” Singal seems to interpret that as saying the programs were not effective, but of course that isn’t what the Cochrane folks said (or, it appears, what Glaser was saying either.)  They said effectiveness had yet to be demonstrated. The quality of previous studies was often questionable, and it was also hard to compare them.

New evidence that AA works?

Singal quotes doc John Kelly thus: “There’s quite a bit of evidence now, actually, that’s shown that AA works.” Kelly is an addiction specialist at Mass General and Harvard Med and one of the authors of  a new Cochrane review to be published in August.

But the Singal post has problems too. It does not, for instance, take up drug therapies for addiction: methadone, naltrexone, etc. That leaves me in the dark about their effectiveness. I gather that 12-step programs in general don’t approve in principle of substituting one drug for another and so don’t want their participants to be using “therapeutic” drugs.

In talking about the newly revealed success rate, Kelly seems to be emphasizing research not on 12-steps themselves but on 12-step facilitation programs. Acronymed TSF, these programs sound something like prep courses for AA. Kelly claims these (plus a 12-step) have been shown to have up to a 20% advantage over one alternative treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy.

The lead author of the 2006 Cochrane Review, Stanford doc Keith Humphreys, will also be an author on the upcoming revisionist paper. He posted on his updated views about a strengthened scientific basis for AA etc last June at WonkBlog. This post, however, also was about the effectiveness of TSF, not 12-step programs by themselves with no introductory TSF boot camp.

Are 12-step facilitation programs the new AA?

But since TSF programs are not themselves regular 12-step sessions, I find these claims confusing. Is TSF a new, improved AA? Can measuring the effects of TSF plus a 12-step sojurn legitimately serve as what the clinical trials folk call “surrogate endpoints?” Is a TSF required for 12-step success, or does it simply increase the success rate? (Or, of course, neither, but both Kelly and Humphreys appear to rule that out.)

What Humphreys concludes is that TSF followed by 12-step participation is as effective as any other professional therapy. That may be good news, but it is also not an evaluation of the plain old AA, NA, etc. that millions of hopeful recoverers count on.

Also, a not unimportant point: the TSF pre-interventions require a therapist. Classic TSF is a three-month program. Humphreys also praises a mini-TSF, a “brief, structured introduction to AA,” without defining “brief.” A three-month stint run by a therapist will cost at least several hundred dollars, and even a brief one will cost something.

Contrast that with the ubiquitous–nearby and frequent–12-step sessions, which are free. Although you are supposed to contribute for the coffee. You can’t beat that for accessibility.

Glaser points out that the question of what works has taken on new urgency because Obamacare requires insurers and Medicaid to pay for substance abuse treatment. I wonder if that fact might help speed up reliable efficacy research. It would be nice to spend that money on stuff that works. Patients trying to get clean would probably prefer that too. Most of them.

Or, assuming that it turns out there is good evidence that 12-step programs can work, with or without TSF prep sessions, is it possible to do a better job of moving that information into physicians’ offices? Not to mention their brains? Along with the data on other approaches like cognitive behavior therapy and meds?

We are, we are being told, entering the age of Personalized Medicine. Surely time to lay out the smorgasbord of addiction therapies with attached price tags and data on what works.

Does breastfeeding increase adult intelligence and income?

The media loved the idea that breastfeeding improves intelligence. And, even better, that a breastfed baby earns more in adulthood. Who wouldn’t?

There have been other studies saying breastfeeding raises IQ (and some that say not). The New England Journal of Medicine‘s JWatch has made its past comments on these studies available free. But this new study, from Brazil and published in The Lancet, attracted so much attention because it went on for more than 30 years, which made it seem particularly persuasive.

Even venues where one might expect critical consideration reported with little analysis. The New York Times health blog Well, for instance. Vox’s Julia Belluz, an unusually skeptical eye, was pretty accepting of the Brazil study too. (Although a few days later she was writing about why you shouldn’t believe what you hear about exciting new medical studies, a series of cautionary tales for journos if there ever was one.)

There is much to praise in this ambitious long-term study. Spare a thought just for the amount of work involved over decades. At the Guardian’s Brain Flapping blog, Dean Burnett’s critical take begins with praise: “It’s a well-designed study which tries to take into account as many variable and confounding factors that could distort the results as possible.” Burnett’s critique leans heavily on the fact that IQ was measured with the always-controversial Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.

He also wonders how this widely-praised study will increase the already heavy pressure on new mothers to breastfeed. This concern he bolstered with personal experience: his wife’s breastfeeding instructor, a health care worker, vilified women who considered formula feeding.

What’s wrong with the Brazil study of breastfeeding and intelligence?

Adrienne LaFrance based her Atlantic criticism largely on details of the study–especially that so many of the study subjects enrolled in 1982–5914 of them–were, as population researchers say, “lost to follow-up.” After 30 years, only 3493 were still available. That’s perhaps understandable in such a long-term study, but it does raise questions about the data’s validity.

She points out other difficulties too. Accounts of breastfeeding practices were collected years after the births, and were based on self-reports by the mothers. Self-reports are intrinsically subject to question.

“And even if breastfed babies really do grow up to have higher IQs and make more money, how do we know it’s because they were breastfed?” LaFrance asks. Although social class differences in breastfeeding practices seem to be less important in Brazil than in many other countries, it still is the case that nursing mothers tend to be better off and more educated than mothers who don’t (or can’t) breastfeed.

breastfeeding

There were other reported adult differences between those breastfed as babies and those who were not. The researchers compared babies who were breastfed for a month or less with those who were breastfed for a year or more. The differences were statistically significant, but not enormous. The income difference amounted to a little over $100 per month at today’s exchange rate, and as with IQ can perhaps be explained by other advantages in the breastfed. Breastfed children stayed in school longer, but less than a year longer. Also, IQ differences amounted to less than 4 points on average.

LaFrance concludes, “And though breastfeeding may play a role in how a kid turns out, 30 years of parenting surely has more to do with what kind of adult a baby becomes.”

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Apple Watch ResearchKit ethics, NYT flubs cellphone risks, scientists urge halt to human genome work

An Apple all day keeps the doctors monitoring you 24/7

I wasn’t paying much attention to the miasma emanating from last week’s Apple presentation, which seemed to consist entirely of The Watch and its astonishing pricing. So the news about Apple’s ResearchKit came to me in an uncommon way: in an office visit with my cardiologist, who is quite excited about the app’s clinical research possibilities.

He’s not the only one; there’s real giddiness about extracting Big Clinical Data 24/7 from people whose digital devices are their constant companions, all but surgically implanted. Theral Timpson of Mendelspod summed it up thus, “It’s an all out open source platform for medical research that has open science folks drooling.”

apple_research_kit_2.0.0

I guess ResearchKit is the logical endpoint of FitBit and other manifestations of the mania for self-monitoring. ResearchKit will pull health data (with permission, Apple hastened to assure us) from people’s iPhones, Apple Watches, and maybe other devices, and deposit it with research projects. It’s open source, so at Wired Marcus Woo says it could be available eventually for non-iThings, but no firm word on that yet.

Woo quotes researchers as saying the fact that there are millions of iPhone users will rule out selection bias in the studies, but also points out that Apple device users are on the whole young, white  and Asian, and affluent. He notes, “Not exactly representative.”

ResearchKit is already around in 5 pre-Watch apps available for the iPhone, so if you’re eager to be a research subject, you don’t have to wait until April. At Stanford Medicine, one of Apple’s A-list collaborators in ResearchKit, Becky Bach blogged at Scope that they were pretty darn excited about MyHeart Counts.  Alan Yeung, MD, an app architect and medical director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Health Department, rhapsodized about the potential for a million downloads, for doing much larger population studies than in the past, and also for significant improvement of data accuracy because it’s being gathered automagically.

On March 18, Scope’s Kris Newby reported proudly that nearly 28,000 people had consented already to provide their data to the MyHeart Counts study on cardiovascular health.

Seems to me ResearchKit might also lower the cost of research. Or maybe I mean it will shift the cost, of data collection at least, to research subjects. MyHeart Counts is at least a free app, but to participate in the research people will have to buy expensive devices like iPhones and Apple Watches and also pay carriers to provide service in perpetuity to send the data to researchers. I concede that the purchases will permit them also to make phone calls, text, do Facebook, play Sudoku, set an alarm, check their stocks, etc. But still.

The other four apps already in existence include mPower, a diagnostic tool for Parkinson’s disease that uses the iPhone touch screen to measure hand tremors and the mic to assess voice tremors. Plus apps for research on asthma, diabetes, and breast-cancer treatment recovery.

Bioethics and ResearchKit

The most extensive take on the research ethics issues that ResearchKit poses comes from an unexpected (to me) source: The Verge. Arielle Duhaime-Ross is concerned, for one thing, about participation by minors without parental consent. She reports that she was able to lie about her age to the Asthma Health app. This apparently is also possible with mPower and the breast cancer app Share the Journey.

The post also explores the obvious issues of privacy and confidentiality. Apple proclaims proudly that it will not see your data, but keeping data anonymous will also be a challenge for the research projects that receive it. One of the researchers admits to Duhaime-Ross up front that there’s no guarantee that a research subject couldn’t be outed.

The Bioethics.com blog is concerned enough about ResearchKit’s bioethical aspects to have posted a link to a Time piece that suggests ethical issues may arise beyond the obvious privacy and confidentiality concerns. For example, will richer institutions be able to attract patients away from trials that might make sense for them but have less funding and can’t provide an app?

At Ars Technica, Jonathan Gitlin thinks the Food and Drug Administration may have something to say about ResearchKit too, although no such potential barrier was mentioned during the Apple festivities launching it. Not every mobile health app is a candidate for regulation, he says, but FDA does have oversight of diagnostic devices, and apps like mPower are offering diagnosis. (And, it strikes me, mPower and its ilk could be a godsend to hypochondriacal obsessives, who will keep pushing the touch screen in search of tremors.)

 

The International New York Times wonders whether an Apple all day will bring doctors to stay

Not often you see a New York Times piece on science and medicine so thoroughly trashed as the one whose original (and, thanks to intervention by the NYT science department, short-lived) hed read: “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”

The science-and-medicine blogosphere roared “NO!”, including the Times‘s own Public Editor Margaret Sullivan (who may, btw, be the best NYT Public Editor ever. She bravely and consistently cuts her employer not much slack.)

The many problems with the piece may well be traceable to the fact that it appeared in the Disruptions blog/column, which runs in the Style section. These departmental divisions are irrelevant to readers, but my hunch is that they may still prevail, hangovers from the dead-tree days, in the editing process.

Meaning that the column, by technology writer Nick Bilton, simply didn’t get the kind of going-over that would have happened in Science or Health. It appears also that Bilton, who may know all there is to know about Silicon Valley, has little background in the squishy and long-disputed medical subjects he tackled here, chiefly the cellphone-as-potential-health-risk saga.

He added insult to that injury by quoting only the infamous (among health writers) Joseph Mercola. “Why is the New York Times turning to Joseph Mercola as an expert on cancer risk?” thundered Kevin Lomangino at HealthNewsReview, pointing out that Mercola is an alternative medicine doctor who believes cancer is caused by root canals.

At Collide-a-Scape, Keith Kloor characterizes Mercola as “an osteopath who is notorious for his many unsubstantiated medical claims, some of which have drawn a warning from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.” Orac, at Respectful Ignorance, presents great detail and several links about the colorful health advice career of Joe Mercola.

At Risk Science, Andrew Maynard walks you through the evidence on cellphone risk, concluding that a 2011 report from International Agency for Research on Cancer (a WHO body)  “found tentative evidence that very high use of cell phones might possibly lead to an increase in the relatively rare conditions glioma, and acoustic neuroma.” Not, in short, at all comparable to health risks from cigarettes.

apple watch gold

Maynard then turns to possible danger from the Apple Watch, which was presumably the viral-topic-of-the-moment reason Bilton decided to do his piece. As Maynard points out,  watches are different from phones because they are not held near the brain and they don’t emit high-power radio waves. “In other words, there is exactly nothing about a wrist-based wearable that, from the IARC report, would suggest that it could cause cancer.  Nothing.”

 

Decision day for designing future humans

Should we tinker with the genes of our descendants? It’s been a debate topic for half a century or more. Always an intriguing question to mull over in the comfortable absence of good ways of doing it.

Now there are good ways. Gene-editing techniques in particular make it possible to modify the next generation’s genomes, and so future generations as well. In any species. Including Homo sap. These techniques, known as germline modification, are (relatively) cheap and simple. In other species they have also been remarkably effective.

So the discussion is, suddenly, theoretical no more. We know that for sure, because lots of scientists are yelling “STOP!” Or at least “Pause!”

The latest shout comes via this week’s Science (March 20). Attention will be paid because the assembled authors are luminaries. Jennifer Doudna, an inventor of CRISPR, one of the gene-editing methodologies that have bumped this formerly hypothetical question to the top of the ToDo list. David Baltimore, Nobel laureate and former president of Cal Tech. George Church, whose Harvard lab is a hotbed of genetic innovation, including germ line gene editing–the editing of genes in sperm, eggs, and early embryos, changes that will be passed on to future generations. Bioethicists R. Alta Charo and Hank Greely.

And several other notables–including, intriguingly, Paul Berg. A Nobel laureate too, Berg was an organizer of the historic 1975 Asilomar conference, which brought together scores of scientists and a few lawyers to draft guidelines for dealing with the (then) brand-new prospect of being able to directly modify genomes. At that point, the potential risks were unknown.

Asilomar is a fine analogy for what scientists are calling for now. Some kind of summit meeting. Some kind of guidelines. Some kind of policy. And, faint hope, some way of making it apply to labs all over the world.

Recalling what Berg said in a 2008 look back at Asilomar reveals what the new paper is about: “[T]here is a lesson in Asilomar for all of science: the best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly-funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best way to regulate — as early as possible. Once scientists from corporations begin to dominate the research enterprise, it will simply be too late.”

In this case, though, scientists from private enterprise are also alarmed, writing last week in Nature to urge a research moratorium. I covered that development, and a lot of background on current efforts at human germline genetic engineering, in my weekly post at the Genetic Literacy Project for last Tuesday (March 17). Scientists in China, it is rumored, have already submitted papers reporting success with modifying the germlines of early human embryos.

germ cell gene editing

Gretchen Vogel describes differences between the commentaries in Nature and Science, and names other concerned scientific groups, in what I think is an open-access piece at Science.  She quotes Church on human germ line gene editing, “What is the scenario that we’re actually worried about? That it won’t work well enough? Or that it will work too well?”

Seems pretty obvious to me. Both.

 

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A century of Einstein’s general #relativity, life on a Saturn moon, sugar industry influences dental research

Everything’s relative

Einstein’s paper on general relativity was published in 1915. The paper didn’t appear until December of that year, but there’s already been some celebratory centennial doings. Science published a special issue last week, and it looks as if the contents are open-access, free to read.

At Last Word on Nothing, Richard Panek wonders whether the fact that one of the more important side effects of general relativity, the idea that gravity distorts space and time, has appeared in two mass-market movies (Interstellar and A Brief History of Time) means that this formerly mind-blowing idea is today widely accepted. Is it a ho-hum factlet now part of mainstream human thought? Or do many of us still need an introduction to space curvature and time dilation?

Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that massive objects warp the space-time around them. NASA's Gravity Probe B found that the space-time around Earth is indeed curved by our planet, and twisted by its rotation. Credit: NASA

Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts that massive objects warp the space-time around them. NASA’s Gravity Probe B found that the space-time around Earth is indeed curved by our planet, and twisted by its rotation. Credit: NASA

Speaking strictly for myself (an English lit major who, bizarrely, managed to sneak into grad school to study genetics because it seemed, well, kinda interesting), a physics brush-up never hurts.

Fortunately, one is available from Mike Wall at Space.com, who points out that General Relativity was a radical idea that has held up remarkably well under a century of intense scrutiny. Wall notes that scientists are using it today to study black holes, neutron stars and other celestial phenomena. Also “researchers will keep trying to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics, to marry the world of the very large with that of the very small.”

If successful, Wall says, this would produce the “grand and longed-for ‘theory of everything.'” In her centennial take at LiveScience, which describes attempts to get general relativity to break down, Tanya Lewis looks forward to a ToE too.

Life on Enceladus, a giant of a tiny moon?

Now this is cool. Or, rather, warm. Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, is a ball of ice maybe 30 miles thick, but underneath the ice is liquid water. And, a new paper asserts, at the bottom of this ice-encased ocean are hydrothermal vents. And you know what hydrothermal vents could mean. Which is why, of a sudden, Enceladus has become a place to look for life.

The evidence is indirect and even a little weird, inferred from nanoparticles of silica adrift in the space around the moon and detected in Cassini spacecraft images. The particles form one of Saturn’s rings (the E ring), but it appears their source is Enceladus.

The blue "stripes" on Enceladus spew ice particles and minerals that are incorporated into Saturn's E-ring. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

The blue “stripes” on Enceladus spew ice particles and minerals that are incorporated into Saturn’s E-ring. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

One of the few ways minuscule silica particles just like this can exist is if minerals dissolved in hot water come suddenly into contact with cold water. This causes them to precipitate. Icy geysers shoot up 200 km from Enceladus, and they can blast the particles out into space to eventually encircle the giant gas planet.

The geysers are cold, but the silica nanoparticles couldn’t exist if they weren’t created first in hot water. So, the scientists reason, there must be hot water (at least 90 degrees C.) on icy Enceladus.

Such hydrothermal vents would be colder than most vents on Earth. But there is an Earthly precedent, the cooler Lost City vents in the mid-Atlantic. Lots of life there anyway. Scott Johnson explains the chemistry and geology at Ars Technica.

How can tiny Enceladus, only ~ 250km around, have hot springs? One standard explanation is tidal friction from mighty Saturn, which heaves and squeezes all its dozens of moons, and keeps Enceladus’s ocean liquid. But the researchers told Susanne Dambeck at the SciLogs Lindau blog that they think Saturn’s kneading action isn’t enough to explain the degree of heat that must be present on Enceladus. At Vox, Joseph Stromberg suggests maybe the additional heat comes from radioactive decay of isotopes.

If you want to know more about those plumes of ice and water vapor shooting up from Enceladus, Deepak Dhingra reports on several recent geyser papers at the Planetary Society guest blog.

Sugar, sugar

In 1998, the attorneys general of 46 states settled their lawsuit for recovery of tobacco-related health care costs against the four largest US tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay more than $200 billion in just the first 25 years, and more in perpetuity.

States handled this windfall stupidly in many cases, mortgaging their shares of future payments to investors for pennies on the dollar and in some cases sticking themselves with billions in future debt, according to ProPublica.

Maybe they’ll have a chance to be smarter next time, with the sugar industry. That’s if dentist Christin Kearns has her way. Kearns is the first author of a paper PLOS Medicine published this week. Drawing on a recently unearthed trove of official documents and memos, the paper shows that, beginning late in the 1960s, the sugar industry influenced the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Dental Research to largely ignore the role of sugar in tooth decay.

“The documents reveal a virtual capture of the NIDR by an affected industry,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a guest post at PLOS’s Speaking of Medicine blog. “The sugar industry convinced the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that studies that might persuade people to cut back on sugary foods should not be part of a national plan to fight childhood tooth decay,” Jocelyn Kaiser said at ScienceInsider.

This paper, Kearns told Lisa Aliferis at Shots, is only the beginning. There are lots more documents to be discovered, lots more sugar industry tactics to be disclosed. Litigation is “certainly a possibility.” A good possibility, it looks like, since one of her co-authors is Stanton Glantz, the American Legacy Foundation Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control and head of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF.

Meantime, the World Health Organization has just officially released its recommendation to eat less sugar, less than 10% of daily calories. Said Marion Nestle at Food Politics, “The last time WHO tried to issue the 10% of calories advice in 2003, it got clobbered by lobbyists. This time, lobbyists didn’t succeed.  This is progress.”

Credit: Rodale News

Credit: Rodale News

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Imperfect science of #TheDress, RIP Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock

Devil in a blue dress

See, this is part of the reason why people don’t trust science.  People crave complete explanations for the phenomena of life. Science is frustrating because mostly it can generate only partial explanations for now and offer cautious and ill-defined promissory notes for full illumination in future. No use explaining that accumulating information layer by layer, and discarding some layers as we go, is just the way science works. Not satisfying.

A current example is what Nature called the “Hues and cry” over the true color of that hideous dress. You could hardly avoid hearing the clamor that made its way late last week from Tumbler to Twitter to the MSM at a speed and volume that puzzled even those who study how things become viral.

In a BuzzFeed poll that so far involves well over 3 million people, about one-third of the respondents say the dress is blue with black lace, and two-thirds say white with gold lace.  (BuzzFeed sees things in black and white, asking for no input from the small number of us who say blue with gold lace, or maybe brown lace, and those of us who can, with conscious effort, switch back and forth between blue and white.)

blue white blue dress

The actual dress is a vivid royal blue, both darker and brighter than the paler blue of the original photo, with lots of black lace that makes it darker still. (Also comes in red, pinkish, and, yes, white, although the sales copy calls that one “ivory.” Lace on all of them is black.)

An optical illusion?

The main “scientific” explanation for why people see the color of #TheDress differently is that it’s an optical illusion.

The illusion is said by some blogging authorities to be due to lighting and a cellphone photo that gives no hint of that lighting or other context. The brilliant Randall Munroe, perpetrator of the xkcd webcomic, shows how background color can govern the dress’s apparent color.

At Neurologica, Steven Novello says the illusion is an example of color constancy at work. Our brains evolved to favor consistency over accuracy, in both memory and perception. So the brain uses color and shading correction algorithms to ensure that we “see” an object as the same color no matter the lighting. But the dress photo is also an ambiguous optical illusion, one where the brain is given conflicting information, or there are different ways to resolve the image that are equally valid.

“The photo of the dress just happens to hit the sweet spot of ambiguity in terms of lighting and shading. Different people’s brains will therefore make different assumptions and correct for either apparent overexposure or underexposure,” he says. “This is how our brains work all the time. What we perceive is a constructed illusion, based upon algorithms that make reasonable assumptions about distance, shading, size, movement, and color – but they are assumptions, none-the-less, and sometimes they can be wrong or misleading.”

But how to explain the dramatic lack of agreement about color?

At Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell doesn’t buy the color constancy theory because it doesn’t really explain why people see different dress colors. “In fact, all of the ‘science explanations’ have simply recounted how perceived colours can change but not the most important thing which is why people are having two stable but contradictory experiences.”

People looking at the XKCD cartoon, he says, don’t markedly disagree about what the perceived colors are. The color effect of each image is very reliable between individuals. That’s not the case with the dress. Also, if the effect was due to context, changing the surroundings of the dress should change the colors. Bell says, “It doesn’t.”

So are we talking about individual differences in color perception, perhaps due to differences in the cones, the eye structures that handle color?  At Vox, Brad Plumer talked to David Williams, director of the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester, who doubts it. Except for the color blind, Williams said, “people have remarkably similar visual systems.” His research has shown that, although people vary greatly in numbers of cones, they still tend to see color in the same way.

Williams speculates that the dichotomy in the apparent dress color is due to people making different unconscious assumptions about the illumination of the dress. That’s a vote for the color constancy explanation.

But like Vaughan, Plumer wants to know why people are making these different assumptions. Color constancy doesn’t explain those differences. He speculates that maybe the eye falls randomly on a particular part of the photo, the brain makes a guess at a color, and that decision locks in the perception.

At BuzzFeed, Virginia Hughes talked to John Borghi, a cognitive neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, who told her that people’s perceptions are influenced by their experiences. Maybe people are primed to see a certain color, for example, because of what they looked at just before they looked at the photo. “It could also be that you’ve seen dresses (or fabric) with the same texture or shape before, which could also affect your perception,” he said.

This strikes me as an example of hand-waving, a “then-a-miracle-occurs” moment, as in the old Sidney Harris cartoon. But maybe this vague hypothesizing stage is where we’re at, and why the many versions of the optical illusion explanations don’t really illuminate the central question here.

Which is why (assuming BuzzFeed’s Big Data reflect the true state of affairs) two out of three of us see a (plainly!) blue and black dress as white and gold. To that question, it appears, there is no answer. Yet.

But what I really want to know is this. I have now read dozens of posts, tweets, etc about this topic, and am astonished that nobody, absolutely nobody, has so far seemed to notice this: Whatever its color, this is a truly ugly, tacky, frightful dress.

RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Kind of surprising, the outpouring of affection from geeks and scientists at Leonard Nimoy’s death last week. I hadn’t realized that fondness for the half-human Mr. Spock was more than a pop culture phenomenon. The actor’s portrayal of the logical, dispassionate science officer on Star Trek’s Enterprise was, apparently, an inspiration for many budding scientists (and science writers.)

There’s a string of remembrances from Scientific American and Nature editors here. ScienceInsider wants your comments here. Keith Cowling quotes from NASA tributes and President Obama at NASA Watch. Kendrick Frazier recalls Nimoy and quotes from the actor’s “conversation” with Spock at the American Geophysical Union Blogosphere.

Hank Campbell, at Science 2.0, says he made science cool. At 538’s Data Lab, Ben Casselman notes that, although the original Star Trek’s sexism and racial tokenism was not particularly progressive, its belief in science was. “Unlike the fundamentally anti-technology “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” was driven by a utopian belief in the power of science and technology to eliminate poverty, end war, cure disease and overcome prejudice. Spock, the Enterprise’s tricorder-toting science officer, was the embodiment of that spirit.”

I must say it, of course. Live long and prosper.

nimoy live long

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Cholesterol and coffee ok, plus head transplants soon?

 

Dietary committee not sweet on sugar

So, what’s most noteworthy about the big fat report just issued by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)?  The declaration that dietary cholesterol is next to irrelevant? DGAC’s casual endorsement of coffee? Its recommendation to eat much more plant life, much less meat, and hardly any sugar-added food and drink? Its advocacy of a sugar tax?

The DGAC is a non-governmental committee of experts that reviews the scientific literature on nutrition every five years and makes nutrition recommendations to the government. The recommendations may–or may not–be the basis for national food guidelines that are expected from the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services about a year from now. A lot of background in this Vox post by Julia Belluz.

The scientific literature, the report said, offers little support for the idea that dietary cholesterol is a significant influence on blood cholesterol, the cholesterol important in heart disease. At Forbes, Larry Husten points out that this is a huge about-face, reversing more than half a century’s worth of official preaching that eating eggs and shrimp is bad bad bad.

Fried Egg

DGAC also advised that no more than 10% of daily calories should come from added sugar, and another 10% from saturated fat. Those recommendations got a good deal of press, but just why is a little puzzling. They are actually somewhat more forgiving of the marketing efforts of the meat and sugar-laden industries than past recommendations, which advised no more than 15% of calories from sugar and saturated fat combined.

Still, DGAC was quite tough on sweets in other ways, calling for a tax on sugary food and drink. At the Verge, Jacob Kastrenakes noted that the DGAC even thought a tax alone didn’t go far enough. Also needed are policy “efforts to lower added sugars in beverages and foods and to limit availability of sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks.”

I will be astonished if those ideas are enshrined in the official document next year. Meanwhile, Amanda MacMillan offers 13 ways to give up soda for good at Fox News. Fox News! Her suggestions include tapering off and watering down your Coke®.

What’s wrong with nutrition science

The committee may have done its homework in the literature, but there have been serious questions about the quality of nutrition science for a long time. A central problem is that nearly all of it is based on what people tell researchers about what they eat. At Eat + Run, doc and diet expert Yoni Freedhoff argues, “sometimes something is worse than nothing, in that despite the fact that science knows we can’t trust self-reported dietary recall, the media and public health still latch on to outcomes from flawed self-reported dietary recall studies as if they’re valuable. As a consequence, they draw conclusions and publish guidelines based on faulty data.”

Before you switch to low carbs, he cautions, note that the current recommendations suffer from the same shortcomings. “Trading one set of assumptions built off weak data for another set of assumptions built off weak data doesn’t strike me as all that wise.”

Incidental Economist Aaron Carroll is not so down on nutrition science in general as he is on the dietary guidelines’ past history of ignoring what he regards as good science about the health effects of specific foods. That would be science coming out of randomized clinical trials. For some time, he says, results from those trials have run counter to the conventional wisdom that viewed dietary cholesterol and fats and sodium with alarm and endorsed replacing fats with carbs.

“I understand people’s frustration at the continuing shifts in nutrition recommendations. For decades, they’ve been told what to eat because ‘science says so.’ Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be true,” Carroll says. That bad advice not only reduces people’s faith in science, it may have cost some of them their lives.

The so-called American Council on Science and Health, the advocacy organization that cemented its reputation decades ago when it shilled for the tobacco industry, chose not to attack the nutrition recommendations on scientific grounds at this time. Instead it got very huffy about DGAC’s inclusion of sustainability as a criterion for food choices, especially red meat. Not relevant for food recommendations, apparently.

dietary guidelines salad

What are the prospects that the DGAC recommendations will become THE government food recommendations a year from now? David Katz at Eat + Run is hopeful but not optimistic. The meat industry, for one, is sharpening its knives. But Katz isn’t so alarmed about the open protests by self-interested groups as he is about behind-the-scenes lobbying and politicization that will occur over the next year. He concludes, “Sharpened knives on open display may be the least of our worries.”

 

Off with his head

Reading about the Italian neuroscientist’s nutsy plan to transplant a human head onto a donor body, my first thought was, “He’s off his head.” Bioethicist Art Caplan’s response at Forbes was something similar: “He’s out of his mind.” The plan, Caplan says, is scientifically rotten and ethically lousy.

Helen Thomson, who broke the severed head story at New Scientist, covers the technical details of what would be involved in transplanting a head onto a donor body and Sergio Canavero’s explanations about how he would approach the job.  But despite Canavero’s assurances, Caplan points out, surgeons don’t really know how to rewire the spinal cord. If they did, there would be far fewer paralyzed people.

head transplant

Canavero acknowledges that the project presents ethical problems, and he doesn’t yet know where in the world he might be able to get permission to try his experiment. For Caplan, the major ethical problem stems from the fact that the brain integrates with the body’s chemistry and nervous system. “Would a brain integrate new signals, perceptions, information from a body different from the one it was familiar with? I think the most likely result is insanity or severe mental disability.”

Thomson says Chinese scientist Xiao-Ping Ren, who has already done a head transplant in mice, plans to try Canavero’s protocol in mice and monkeys shortly.

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Epigenome Project, robot ethics, one-way trip to Mars

 

Here’s the Epigenome Project

The headline on Rachel Feltman’s post at Speaking of Science said the epigenome project was awesome, which is as good an introduction as any. That slew of two dozen papers in Nature and its associated journals described where we are with human epigenomics/epigenetics. (These papers seem to be open access, hosanna.) They were only published Wednesday, so while there are many many many news stories, heavy blogging hasn’t quite kicked in yet.

Explaining the relationship of the genome and the epigenome at a press conference, study coauthor Manolis Kellis of MIT said “All our cells have a copy of the same book [the genome], but they’re all reading different chapters, bookmarking different pages, and highlighting different paragraphs and words.”

The study of epigenetics is about how nurture shapes nature. It seeks to explain how the environment turns genes off and on in particular cells at particular times. The bookmarks Kellis spoke of are biochemical mechanisms that change the behavior of genetic material without changing any DNA sequences.

The two best known and most studied of these mechanisms are DNA methylation and histone modification. In methylation, methyl groups (CH3) stick to DNA and make genes easier or harder to turn on. Histones are the proteins DNA is wrapped tightly around. Their modifications usually involve attachment of an acetyl group (CH3CO.)

epigenetics

For the National Institutes of Health’s Roadmap Epigenomics Program, hundreds of scientists around the world studied epigenetic events in more than 100 types of body tissues, assembling reference epigenomes. These are the epigenetic patterns characteristic of each tissue, information that can be compared to other samples in future.

As Merlin Crossley observed at The Conversation, scientists are finding that mutations don’t usually disrupt genes, they influence how strongly (and when) those genes are expressed. Epigenetics operates as a sort of volume control on genes, but how those controls work is still largely unknown. That’s what the epigenome project is about. The working hypothesis is that variation in disease susceptibility–or any other trait–depends mostly on subtle differences in the expression of genes, which is under epigenetic control.

Here’s robot ethics

“There’s nothing frivolous about it — robot ethics is the most important philosophical issue of our time.” That opinion, from Graham Templeton at ExtremeTech, had me amused but anguished too. The most important issue? Didn’t Graham see a headline now and then? Or even The Daily Show? But I looked into the topic of robot ethics and found that I was seriously behind the times. People have been thinking about the need for robot ethics in its contemporary manifestations for the past few years.

Robot morality discussions have circled mainly around two topics: self-driving cars and automated warfare. Self-driving cars are, of course, supposed to greatly increase road safety. But even if they reduce death and dismemberment dramatically, there will be screwups and–most important from the standpoint of ethics–dilemmas. If an accident is inevitable, should a robocar kill its passengers or a schoolbus full of kids? For a thorough discussion of auto-auto morality, see this post at Wired by Patrick Lin.

Automated warfare, in the form of drones carrying out those “surgical strikes” in the Middle East, has been under the gun for some years now, with no resolution that I’m aware of. On the horizon are many more mechanical horrors of war. See this post (also by Patrick Lin) at the Atlantic.

RI-MAN, designed for human care. Credit: RIKEN, Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center

RI-MAN, designed for human care. Credit: RIKEN, Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (plus another that he added for protecting all of humanity) come inevitably to mind. Are they a good place to start on robot morality? An ArXiv paper from last year discussed at Tech Review argues that our fears of robots are overblown and we don’t even need the Laws. As for automated warfare, that’s not the robots’ doing, it’s the people in charge, and they are already subject to international law.

Sure.

At io9, George Dvorsky interviews robot and AI experts and concludes that Asimov’s inventiveness can’t protect us from our inventions. For one thing, the Laws are operational forms of rule-based ethics, aka deontology, and rule-based ethical systems just don’t work, according to Louie Helm of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.

Ben Goertzel, AI theorist, points out to Dvorsky that Asimov devised the Laws and then wrote stories about how they failed. Goertzel concludes, “So the Three Laws were instructive in terms of teaching us how any attempt to legislate ethics in terms of specific rules is bound to fall apart and have various loopholes.”

Here’s Mars One

Mars One, the privately financed project whose announced purpose is to send 4 people on a one-way journey to Mars in the next decade, has winnowed its 200,000-plus applicants down to an even 100, with a couple of dozen the eventual goal. After arriving safely on Mars, the lucky four first colonists are supposed to build a Martian habitat in preparation for more colonists.

Credit: Mars One / Bryan Versteeg

Credit: Mars One / Bryan Versteeg

That’s considerably more ambitious than NASA’s plan, which calls for a human landing on Mars sometime in the 2030s. Well, maybe not really more ambitious, since NASA envisions bringing its voyagers back to Earth.

Why go to Mars? Well, once we’re really ready for the new age of exploration, Mars is a reasonable choice. “Because it’s there,” is good enough for me. Although Dan Van Winkle at the Mary Sue cites a NASA study showing that building cloud cities far above super-hot Venus might in some ways be a more practical goal. Venus is closer than Mars, and temperatures in the upper atmosphere could be manageable.

The cities would consist of solar-powered airships. Oh, the humanity.

Other commentators produce their own justifications for the Mars trip. Aerospace engineer Ashley Dove-Jay’s reason is straight out of Disney’s futurism in WALL-E: we’ve messed up the Earth irretrievably and need to stage a getaway. “If this is where humankind is destined to remain, then we shall find ourselves fighting over whatever is left of it,” he says at The Conversation. Also, space projects are good for global politics, they bring nations together.

Writing at 13.7 Cosmos & Culture, anthropologist Barbara King thinks Mars One may be a chance for humanity’s do-over. She wonders how the colonists will avoid replicating our inequities here on Earth, and draws on the fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson for illumination.

You will not be surprised to learn that there are naysayers like the MIT engineers who say the Mars One project is technically wacko (my interpretation of their courteous conclusions.) The Martians’ locally sourced crops would produce suffocating levels of oxygen, they say, and technologies for wringing water out of that very dry planet don’t yet exist. Also, there’s the problem of getting spare parts.

Furthermore, last year one of the many authorities on Islam, this one based in the United Arab Emirates, issued a fatwa against going to live on Mars. The grounds: Islam forbids suicide.

In his long explainer about what’s required for going to Mars at Starts with a Bang, Ethan Siegel ends up condemning the Mars One project. “I just don’t think hoodwinking and exploiting a bunch of naive explorers, killing them horrifically in short order because you sold them a false promise of what they could’ve achieved, is the way to do it.”

But if Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech is right, horrific killing may not be outcome at all. In fact, maybe getting to Mars isn’t really the point. The project is endorsed by one of the founders of the reality series Big Brother. The Mars One project, and the leadups to it, are to be financed by a worldwide multiyear TV reality show. To that end, Machkovech points out, the newly winnowed candidate group of 100 “contains some curious choices who seem better suited for reality TV than grueling outer-space missions.”

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