SciBlogs

Archive 2011

If you think the All Blacks shirt was a rip off, think again. Siouxsie Wiles Sep 26

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Much fuss was recently made when New Zealanders found out that Adidas All Blacks shirts could be bought online overseas for less than half the cost they are selling for here. Except fans couldn’t buy them online as Adidas had to put a stop to deliveries to New Zealand.

If you think that’s ‘rip of NZ’, here is some more food for thought. Scientists are being massively overcharged for reagents they need to do their experiments. This was brought rather painfully to my attention today when I asked someone to order some competent cells for me. When we last ordered them from the local distributor back in April, they cost nearly $600 (NZ) for a vial. Recently that local distributor was taken over by another larger company called ThermoFisher Scientific. New price? $1540. I had a quick look at how much they cost in the UK and USA – the equivalent of $295 and $240, respectively. And here we get stung by a $300 MAF import charge too.

What is so sad about this scenario is that science funding is really hard to come by here, and to know that when we do get some money we are paying massively over the odds for the reagents we need to do our experiments, means that in real terms it is even harder to compete with labs overseas. They can do so much more for their money.

The NZ government and public should be outraged. Perhaps this is doing ‘science for profit’, only its the suppliers who are making all the profit.

Is your dog as healthy as you? Not likely in your case, Ms Kelland. Siouxsie Wiles Sep 24

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I recently described the ‘health correspondents’ who feature in a local free publication called the Ponsonby News. This month they have a new one, Deborah Kelland*. In her first article entitled ‘Is your dog as healthy as you?’** Ms Kelland described how she has recently completed four liver/gallbladder cleanses

“to rid myself of hundreds of gallstones (that I never realised that I had)”

as a result of reading Andreas Moritz***‘s book ‘The liver and gallbladder miracle cleanse’. Ms Kelland has a hypothyroid Giant Schnauzer called Strauss who she says frequently suffers from infections and

“all kinds of immunity issues”

Declaring herself convinced that the liver “is the fundamental issue in all health disorders”, Ms Kelland decides she should try the liver/gallbladder cleanse regime (five days of apple juice followed by a day of Epsom salts and olive oil, in case you were wondering) on Strauss. She decided to contact Andreas Moritz for guidance, via his Facebook page.

Apparently Mr Moritz could not see how it was feasible to administer his health regime to a dog. Instead he suggested she try Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS), described by Jim Humble in his 2006 self-published book, The Miracle Mineral Solution of the 21st Century, as a cure for HIV, malaria, hepatitis viruses, the H1N1 flu virus, common colds, acne, cancer. You get the picture. And what is this miracle mineral solution? Essentially bleach. Scary. Sold by the tales that MMS detoxifies the body, Ms Kelland started adding a few drops to Strauss’ daily water. The result?

“He excreted days of black tar”

To be fair, she also says he has gone on to gain energy and vitality. Phew.

Needless to say, I’ve written a letter to the editor**** and contacted the vet who’s column appeared alongside hers and urged him to comment too. Isn’t it sad that someone would choose to discuss the health of their pet with a modern day snake-oil salesman over Facebook instead of consulting a vet, and then not worry when they start to excrete black tar? <sigh>

UPDATE 25/9/11:  Thanks to Alison Campbell for telling me about this paper in the Lancet by two doctors who analysed ‘gallstones’ given to them by a patient who had been on the ‘gallbladder/liver cleanse’ and found them not to be gallstones at all but ‘soap stones which contained cholesterol, bilirubin, or calcium by established wet chemical methods. Instead they seem to form from the action of gastrointestinal enzymes on the olive oil taken as part of the ‘cleanse’.

* Who I believe is a real estate agent.

** You can read her article in its entirety on page 143 of the online version of the Ponsonby News.

***Actually i’m assuming its this guy, she calls him Andreas Mortiz. Pharyngula on the other hand calls him a ‘cancer quack’!

**** My letter to the editor:

I felt compelled to emerge from my ivory profit-driven tower long enough to warn PN readers of the dangers of following the advice of your latest ‘health correspondent’, Deborah Kelland, who I believe is a real estate agent. Putting aside her odd belief that the liver is the ‘root of all wellbeing and disorder’, I am deeply concerned by her advocating the use of Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) by people on either themselves or their pets (Is your dog as healthy as you? September issue).

It is certainly true that MMS, which is the rather grandiose name for what is essentially bleach, is capable of killing the malaria parasite and other nasty microbes. However, it is not widely used as a treatment not because of a global conspiracy by the medical establishment against ‘science for people’, but because it is a dangerous chemical capable of killing the patient as well as ‘curing’ the disease. I am relieved that Ms Kelland administered a low enough dose to her Giant Schnauzer to only cause him to have some diarrhoea and I hope that the animal does not suffer any lasting damage.

It saddens me that someone would choose to discuss the health of their pet with a modern day snake-oil salesman over Facebook instead of consulting a vet. I’m afraid MMS is more a case of ‘pseudoscience for profit’ and would urge PN readers to more thoroughly research the subject if tempted to give it a try.

Yours sincerely

Dr Siouxsie Wiles
Ponsonby resident and University of Auckland medical researcher.

PS I would like to declare that I have no competing interests – I am neither a vet nor medical doctor and do not make a living selling an alternative to bleach to cure all ails. I am a scientist who passionately believes it is important to raise the dangers of believing poorly researched pseudoscientific health claims, regardless of whether they are made by alternative health practitioners or the medical establishment.

‘Pseudoscience’ for profit Siouxsie Wiles Sep 20

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Every month a free 150 page glossy A4 magazine lands in my letter box, one of almost 17,000 distributed around Auckland’s inner suburbs. The Ponsonby News is essentially an enormous advertising feature, and being Ponsonby based, a number of the adverts are for acupuncturists and holistic spa’s.

The Ponsonby News has a couple of ‘health correspondents’: John Appleton, who has a website selling vitamin and other supplements, and ‘Dr’ Ajit, an Ayurvedic practitioner* with a couple of spa’s in Auckland. Mr Ajit’s column is usually pretty silly, like urging people with hay fever not to eat stodgy food in winter for fear it will clog them up. But John Appleton’s column usually worries me. A couple of months ago, he was inspired by an article he read in the Listener assessing the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy and which advised readers to avoid the internet and talk to their doctor instead. Unsurprisingly, Mr Appleton was somewhat horrified by this suggestion having ‘found the internet to be a fabulous resource’ for researching topics like hormone replacement therapy. Indeed, what he went on to write about was ‘bio-identical’ hormones which he implies are a safe and effective alternative to hormone replacement therapy. I wrote a letter to the editor to point out that the benefits of ‘bio-identical’ hormones were at best over-hyped and at worst pseudoscientific nonsense**, which prompted a reply both through his column and in person***. In it, I was accused of being part of the medical establishment, locked away in my ivory tower, only interested in ‘science for profit’, unlike those in the complementary and alternative medicine field, who he believes are doing ‘science for people’. It is worrying that the alternative health field has successfully propagated the belief that it is purely motivated by improving people’s health and wellbeing, completely glossing over the fact that it is an extremely lucrative industry.

One of the points I raised in my letter to the editor was that of conflicts of interest, suggesting that the Ponsonby News should inform its readers that Mr Appleton may suffer such a thing in relation to his vitamin and supplement sales. Neither Mr Appleton or the editor addressed this point. Instead, Mr Appleton said he stood by his article on ‘bio identical hormones’ citing a review paper by Dr Kent Holtorf MD published in a fairly obscure peer reviewed journal called Postgraduate Medicine****. Interestingly, under the ‘Conflicts of interest’ section, it states that Dr Holtorf has declared no conflicts of interest. This is despite the fact that he is founder of the Holtorf Medical Group which has offered ‘bio-identical’ hormone therapy for over 10 years. Science for people? More like ‘pseudoscience for profit’, if you ask me.

* A system of traditional medicine that originated in India

** ‘Bio-identical’ was just a phrase coined to describe plant-derived molecules believed to be identical to human hormones. No evidence has ever been presented to verify this fact. Many of the conventional treatments include similar plant-derived molecules. The difference is that the conventional therapies have been studied over many years so doctors know what the side effects and risks associated with them are. There is no evidence that ‘bio-identical’ hormones are safer or more effective; it is likely they have the same side effects and risks. As for it being pseudoscience, ‘bio-identical’ hormone treatment often involves blood or saliva testing to determine which hormones are deficient and hence tailor treatment to the individual. While this sounds like a good idea, there is no scientific basis or indeed evidence that such a strategy is useful or relevant. In fact, hormone levels in the blood and saliva vary from day to day and are unlikely to reflect the actual biological activity in specific tissues.

*** If interested you can see my letter and Mr Appleton’s reply on page 84 of the online version of the Ponsonby News.

**** I say obscure because none of the medics I asked had heard of it.

Mind altering microbes Part I: Suicidal crickets Siouxsie Wiles Aug 18

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I went to a fantastic departmental seminar yesterday by Associate Professor Mark Thomas about how parasites are able to manipulate the behaviour of their unfortunate host, usually as a means of enhancing transmission or to enable the parasite to reach the next phase of its life cycle. I wanted to share some of the fantastic examples Mark talked about, starting with suicidal crickets.

A few years ago, Frédéric Thomas and colleagues described (1) how crickets infected with hairworms (Nematomorpha) commit suicide by jumping into water. This is necessary behaviour on the part of the hairworm as the parasites spend their adult lives free-living in aquatic environments where they mate and produce eggs.

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During a field study, the authors collected crickets either from the forest or around a swimming pool, and found very different rates of infection: 15% (5/33) for forest-caught crickets compared with 95% (36/38) for those collected around the swimming pool. Furthermore, when all the crickets were placed near the swimming pool, almost half of infected crickets entered the water within 15 minutes, compared to less than 14% of uninfected crickets. Infected crickets that had been rescued immediately returned to the edge of the swimming pool and jumped in again.

Frédéric Thomas and colleagues have used a proteomics approach to identify proteins expressed by infected crickets and grasshoppers and their infecting hairworms to find the cause of the suicidal behaviour (2). Turns our hairworms synthesise two proteins from the Wnt family of signalling molecules that are homologous to insect proteins involved in the development of the central nervous system (CNS). Similarly, infected grasshoppers also show higher synthesis of two Wnt proteins in their CNS.

So there you have it. Parasitic worms can control the brains of crickets. Whatever next?!

1. Thomas, F. , Schmidt-Rhaesa, A. , Martin, G. , Manu, C. , Durand, P. and Renaud, F. (2002), Do hairworms (Nematomorpha) manipulate the water seeking behaviour of their terrestrial hosts?. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 15: 356—361. doi: 10.1046/j.1420-9101.2002.00410.x

2. Biron, D.G. , Marché, L. , Ponton, F. , Loxdale, H.D., Galéotti, N., Renault, L., Joly, C. and Thomas, F. (2005), Behavioural manipulation in a grasshopper harbouring hairworm: a proteomics approach. Proc. R. Soc. B, 272: 2117-212. 6doi: 10.1098/rspb.2005.3213.

A swift and deadly foe Siouxsie Wiles Aug 02

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I’ve just read in the NZ Herald that the chief executive of the construction company Fulton Hogan died suddenly and unexpectedly at the weekend, apparently within hours of contracting an aggressive meningococcal infection.

The bug responsible, Neisseria meningitidis, is a pretty nasty one and the symptoms of infection can often be fatally mistaken for flu. N. meningitidis can cause both meningitis, where bacteria attack the lining between the brain and skull (the meninges), and blood poisoning (septicemia). Symptoms include a stiff neck, fever and rashes. The rash doesn’t fade if pressed with a glass, something I always remember my mum doing whenever my brother or I had a fever. The bug is transmitted by coughing, sneezing or the exchange of saliva, and sometimes through prolonged contact with an infected person. Infection is more likely in the under-5′s and can result in death in up to 10% of cases, even with antibiotic treatment. A vaccine is available but not on the schedule.

According to the ESR website, there have been 42 cases of meningococcal infection in NZ so far this year. There is also an interesting report summarising occurrence of the disease in 2010. Apparently an epidemic of meningococcal disease began in NZ in mid-1991. The vaccine was introduced in 2004 and then removed from the schedule in 2008. It is still available to selected groups. Rates before the epidemic were 1.5 cases per 100,000 rising to 17.4 cases per 100,000 in 2001. The rate for 2010 was 2.4 cases per 100,000. Of the 96 cases in 2010, 6 people died.

So remember, always check any rash by pressing firmly with a glass. If it doesn’t fade, get to the hospital.

Students unhappy over university travel bill Siouxsie Wiles Aug 01

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Last night TVNZ One News ran with the story that the University of Auckland spent $24 million last year on travel for staff. It was a pretty emotive bit of journalism:

“Our biggest university is racking up big bills at the travel agent which you are helping to pay”

“The University has a policy of reimbursing staff who buy alcohol on work trips”

Says Joe McCrory from the Auckland University Students Association:

“Its a bit unfair for students who are struggling to enter university to see that there is a lot being spent on conferences and travel”

According to an email to staff from the VC today, the amount was actually $19 million and included travel by staff (and some students) to:

  • present papers at conferences,
  • take part in competitions,
  • upskill through research and study leave,
  • collaborate on research,
  • seek commercial research revenue,
  • recruit fee-paying students, engage in fund-raising,
  • check out current infrastructure, administrative and IT systems at leading universities.

Its a common misconception that when the students are on holiday, academics are on holiday too. In actual fact, they are all breathing a sigh of relief and getting on with the rest of their job. Doing research (often with collaborators overseas), applying for money to do their research, presenting research at conferences, … In fact, students may be surprised to learn that the average academic is contracted to spend only 40% of their time on teaching, with 40% spent on research and 20% on administrative duties. Attending conferences is a crucial part of an academics life, ensuring we stay up to date with the latest techniques and developments in our fields.

Attending a research-led teaching institution as he does, Joe McCrory’s education would certainly suffer if we all stopped travelling so more students could come to university.

Should we be rethinking the HPV vaccination strategy? Siouxsie Wiles Jun 22

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A study just published in the Lancet suggests that Australia’s cervical cancer vaccination programme is already showing signs of success, with a decrease in the number of high-grade cervical abnormalities in vaccinated girls under 18.

To quickly recap, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is a sexually transmitted infection which causes cervical cancer in women. A number of countries, including NZ, now vaccinate girls from the age of 12 against the most common HPV types. There are currently two vaccines on the market: Gardasil and Cervarix.

Débora Miranda recently wrote about the plight of women with cervical cancer in Africa. Apparently more than 1 in 5 cases of cervical cancer are in women in developing countries, which lack the screening programmes we have access to. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) recently announced that Merck offered a 67% reduction in the current public price of their Gardasil vaccine, to $5. Merck also support the Gardasil access programme having pledged to donate 3 million doses of Gardasil to low income countries.

But why are only girls vaccinated? HPV can also cause a variety of cancers in men, including anal cancer and a subset of penile and oral cancers. In fact, in the developed world, the number of HPV-related cancers in men is similar to that of cervical cancer in women.

I was recently chatting with Daniel Keogh, aka Professor Funk, who paid to get himself vaccinated and produced a fantastic video encouraging young men to do the same.
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Daniel raised two important points:
1. Why should girls be made responsible for sexual health? After all, its the boys who will be infecting them.
2. What about those boys who are bi or gay?

Indeed, what of the boys? Last year, Joel Palefsky wrote an article published in the Journal of Adolescent Health outlining the case for vaccinating boys as well as girls from a young age. It certainly makes sense. Presumably, the decision to only vaccinate girls is based on some cost-benefit analysis and the boys lost out. But maybe we should be turning this on its head and vaccinating the boys instead. That way they won’t spread HPV to girls, protecting them against cervical cancer, while also protecting bisexual and gay boys.

On an almost unrelated note, I’ve just finished reading The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. An amazing story and one which every scientist should read. Cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer tumour turned into the first immortalised cell line. And that tumour arose because Henrietta Lacks was infected with multiple copies of the most virulent HPV strain known. So HPV also gave us HeLa cells, the most commonly used cell line instrumental in many of the scientific advances made in the last 60 years.

It was the bean sprouts! The veggie-burger disease revisited. Siouxsie Wiles Jun 17

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Finally the number of new cases from the German E. coli outbreak are easing. To date there have been 3362 people infected, with 823 people developing Haemolytic Uraemic Syndrome (HUS) and 37 deaths. Turns out the culprit was bean sprouts from an organic farm in lower Saxony. It does seem likely that the reason the majority of cases have been women in their 20′s to 40′s is that they are more likely to eat salads containing beansprouts, rather than it being due to some inherent features of the E. coli strain.

So what do we know about the bug? First a quick introduction to nasty E. coli strains. They are classified based on O and H proteins; O is the cell wall lipopolysaccharide (LPS) antigen and H the flagella antigen. There are also a number of different ‘classes’:

ETEC – enterotoxigenic E. coli cause diarrhoea without fever (bug produces enterotoxins)

EAEC – enteroaggregative E. coli cause watery diarrhoea without fever (bug produces a hemolysin and an enterotoxin)

EIEC – enteroinvasive E. coli cause profuse diarrhea and high fever

EPEC – enteropathogenic E. coli cause diarrhoea (bug does not produce enterotoxins, instead has a type III secretion system and uses a protein called intimin to bind to host intestinal cells)

EHEC – enterohaemorrhagic E.coli cause bloody diarrhoea and HUS (bug has type III secretion system and produces Shiga toxin) [may also be referred to as STEC -shiga-toxin producing E. coli]

As I wrote previously, the BGI (formally the Beijing Genomics Institute) sequenced the bacterium involved and released of the genomic data to the international community for ‘crowdsourcing’. And here is what the crowd have discovered:

1. The outbreak strain is serotype O104:H4, which has been reported to cause HUS before, in a young woman in Korea in 2006. This was unexpected, as the majority of E. coli outbreaks and HUS cases reported to date have been caused by EHEC O157:H7.

2. The outbreak strain appears to be an EAEC strain as it contains most of the adherence genes of typical EAEC and lacks intimin and the EPEC/EHEC type III secretion system.

3. Unlike normal EAEC the outbreak strain does not contain hemolysin.

4. Also unlike normal EAEC the outbreak strain has picked up a Shiga toxin (Stx2).

5. They are very antibiotic resistant, including possessing extended spectrum beta lactamases (ESBL’s) which confer resistance to cephalosporins.

Now the source has been identified, there will be a lots of questions asked as to how the bean sprouts became contaminated. Kat Holt has suggested that as EAEC strains have not been identified in animals, humans (most likely asymptomatic carriers) may be to blame. It may be that people handling food need to be screened to make sure they are not carriers. Whatever happens though, it is clear that new regulations and improved surveillance and disease prevention strategies are needed to stop such an outbreak occurring again.

Marketing headache – an apology Siouxsie Wiles Jun 16

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I recently wrote about an ‘advertising feature’ I saw in a magazine that discussed migraines before leading onto an advert for a migraine prevention medicine. I jumped to the conclusion that the ‘feature’ was paid for by the pharmaceutical company, but thought it best to get in touch with the magazine and check.

So I owe Janssen‘s an apology. Sorry. It turns out that Janssen’s had nothing to do with the feature. Here is the reply from the magazine:

A North & South freelancer wrote the content on our request and based on topics we thought would interest our readers. As a matter of course with these types of feature promotions we advised potential advertisers about the topic selection, thus the migraine prevention advertisement within.

So patients will now be bothering their doctor to prescribe an expensive drug (apparently there are a number of cheaper alternatives) to prevent their migraines so a magazine can get advertising revenue? I’m speechless.

Marketing headache Siouxsie Wiles Jun 12

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Reading the July issue of North & South I came across a 4 page advertising feature called “Good Health Special Report”. It starts:

Taking time out and making your own health and wellbeing a priority isn’t just a nice idea – it’s a necessity. Our health report also brings you some of the latest developments and research into common conditions, life stage changes, new products and preventive measures.

The ‘report’ consists of three full page articles:
A Vision Decision – which suggests tips for good eye health, including eating well, keeping blood pressure and weight down and regular visits to an optician;
Change of Life – which discusses the menopause and hormone replacement therapy (HRT);
Head Attack – all about migraines.

Did you know that Elvis Presley was a migraine sufferer? Along with that little snippet, I also learned that there are medicines that can be taken in anticipation of a migraine, but that they are not recommended in all cases. Oh, and that migraine sufferers should “take an active role in dealing with the condition”, whatever that means.

What fascinated me about this rather long (and clearly expensive) ‘advertising feature’ was that nowhere could I see who or what was being advertised. No logo’s, nothing. How odd.

But wait! What is that on the next page?

PREVENT MIGRAINES BEFORE THEY START. ….Ask your doctor about TOPAMAX(R) for migraine prevention.

Funnily enough that advert does have a logo, that of Janssen a ‘leading research-based pharmaceutical company’ according to their website.

Coincidence? Or a case of manipulative marketing?* I’m not sure why this has made me so angry, but it has. I guess I feel like they are treating me like I’m stupid. But it must work on enough people or they wouldn’t pay for five pages instead of just one.

* I know, I know. By definition marketing is manipulative….

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