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Archive Health and Medicine

Egyptian Army Claims Cure for HIV and Hepatitis C Michael Edmonds Jun 30

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Apparently the Egyptian army has developed a new cure for hepatitis C and HIV, described in the following video.

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The claims about this device contain many of the trappings of pseudoscience – a secretly developed device using “electromagnetic waves”, a conspiracy to suppress the invention, however, the obvious giveaway in this story is the inclusion of a device “invented” by the Egyptian military in 2010 to detect carriers of hepatitis C in a crowd. This detector, looks suspiciously like a device that previously has been sold as a bomb and drug detection device, despite the fact that it is little more than a modern dowsing rod (made up of a hinged aerial that waves from side to side).

Why the Egyptian military would be involved in such devices, I don’t know, but the potential harm is immense. Passing blood from the body, through a device and back again has associated hazards, and using the equivalent of a magic wand to determine who has hepatitis C and who does not, is horrifying. A misdiagnosis either way could have severe consequences for the patient, and society.

I hope someone in the Egyptian military and/or government comes to their senses quickly, to limit the harm that these devices could do.

 

Sir Peter Gluckman on New Zealand’s Childhood Obesity Epidemic Michael Edmonds Jun 09

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Yesterday on TV One’s Sunday programme there was an interview with Sir Peter Gluckman on New Zealand’s childhood obesity problems and his recent appointment to the Commission to End Childhood Obesity by the World Health Organisation. I thought it was an excellent interview (though personally I would avoid terms such as co-variates and multi-sectorial) highlighting the value of science in informing us about the issues involved.

The interview can be found here

“Legal Highs”, Testing, & Political Point Scoring Michael Edmonds Apr 29

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The removal of “legal highs” from shelves in two weeks, and the debate over using animals to test them, has science taking a backseat to politics as political parties line up to score points with the public.

“Legal highs” are being withdrawn from the market because they have never been tested in terms of their toxicity (which begs the question why were they ever made legal?). Politicians from the major parties are now saying they do not support testing of these drugs on animals (with accompanying video footage of them petting a cute furry animal) which leads to a catch 22 situation. How can you effectively test these substances without animal testing?

Several politicians have trotted out the “fact” that drugs can be tested using computer modelling and in test tube tests, however, this does not provide the full story. Even if such tests are carried out, animal testing will still be necessary to see how these drugs affect a living animal. It makes sense that you would need to test psychoactive substances which have the potential to be addictive on something with a nervous system (e.g. a living animal) at some stage during the testing.

Of course, there is an alternative to using animals – if these substances are made illegal they will go underground with people buying and using them most likely with little knowledge of what they are using, how pure it is, and what is a safe dosage. Couldn’t another possibility be to do medically monitored testing on volunteers to see what the effects are? If they are likely to use these substances anyway, why not use them in a controlled way?

One of the reasons legal highs have become popular is because cannabis is illegal. These to me seems rather absurd – people are using untested synthetic substances because they aren’t allowed to legally use a natural substance for which the effects are reasonably well researched. Perhaps if human testing were allowed, then cannabis could be tested along side these “legal highs”.

Personally, I would prefer it if these substances didn’t exist. I think any psychoactive drug must carry dangers with it – you are after all altering the chemistry of the brain when you use them! Unfortunately they do exist and whether legal or illegal people will continue to use them. No politician is brave enough to ban them outright. Instead they have chosen to use this catch 22 around requiring testing but not allowing testing on animals in order to offend the least number of voters.

The removal of these substances in such a short time frame has some mental health organisations concerned about the number of people they may have to deal with as they go through withdrawal from the legal highs. One has to wonder whether public health is also taking a back seat to politics.

Anyone would suspect it is an election year.

 

 

 

Energy Drinks in Schools – Let the Propaganda begin Michael Edmonds Jan 23

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This morning on Breakfast TV they talked about a recent proposal to ban energy drinks in schools. Having taught for a short period in high schools this seems like a good idea to me – teaching high school students can be hard enough without having some suffering the effects of drinks which are both high in caffeine and sugar.

Katherine Rich, spokesperson for the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council, an industry lobby group, was interviewed and during the interview stated several times that there was less coffee in energy drinks than in tea or coffee. This sounded wrong to me, as in the past I have had my students analyse the caffeine content of various drinks. So I wandered over the the supermarket this morning, checked a few cans of energy then consulted the literature. From this I constructed the following table:

Drink Average serving (mL) Amount of caffeine/serving
Brewed coffee (strong)

250

140 mg

Instant coffee

250

98 mg

Brewed Tea

250

58 mg

V double hit

500

155   mg

V blue

250

80 mg

V maximum

250

500

80 mg*

160 mg*

Lift + (green)

250

79 mg

Monster energy

550

176   mg

Red Bull

250

335

473

80 mg

107 mg

150   mg

Mother energy

500

160   mg

*contains guarana 300 mg

As you can see that if we were talking about the same serving size then Ms Rich is correct with regards to a strong or medium strength cup of coffee, though not with regards to tea based on the figures I obtained.

However, she has overlooked the fact that many energy drinks are sold in 500 (and one in 550 mL) cans. These deliver a dose higher than  your average cup of coffee, and much higher than tea.

Another oversight is that drinks such as V maximum also contain guarana and it is not clear to me from the labeling whether the stated amount of caffeine takes into account the caffeine which would be present in the 300 mg of guarana they add. If not the caffeine content should be higher than stated!

Of course comparing the amount of caffeine in energy drinks to that in coffee and tea is a bit of a red herring as I don’t think many schools would encourage students to drink tea or coffee. But then maybe this is simply an attempt to “normalise” the idea of caffeine consumption by children by linking it to commonly consumed drinks by adults.

Either way, it would be nice if people didn’t put a spin on the actual facts in such debates.

 

 

Fox News and GMO’s Michael Edmonds Dec 31

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I saw this clip on TV this morning (I didn’t realise what we see from Fox on Sky is a month old) and was “impressed” with the degree of muddled science and scaremongering they managed to put into such a short clip.

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inaccurate science (confusing viruses, bacteria with genes) – check

oversimplification of the science (“food made in a petri dish”) – check

overhyping/misrepresenting animal studies – check

conspiracy theories (“aren’t these people eating these foods?”) – check

typical poor reporting from Fox – check, check, check.

Sampling a Cell without Killing it – Nanobiopsies Michael Edmonds Dec 31

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I’ve just read a fascinating article in December 16th edition of Chemical & Engineering News* by Louisa Dalton which describes a new technique to sample cell material without killing the cell.

This new method, developed by biomolecular engineer, Nader Pourmand, and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is able to withdraw approximately 50 femtolitres from the cell using a computer guided scanning ion conductance microscope. The computer guides a glass nanotube to the cell membrane where it is pushed 1 micrometre into the cell. A negative voltage across the tip of the pipette alters the surface tension between the cytoplasm and a solution in the pipette causing approximately 50 femtolitres of cytoplasm to be withdrawn from the cell.

This method allows cytoplasm to be withdrawn from different parts of a cell, with the cell remaining viable even after 10 punctures. The utility of this technique has been demonstrated by using it to extract and subsequently sequence, cytoplasmic messenger RNA from human cancer cells and mitochondrial DNA from fibroblasts.

This new technique opens the way to dynamic monitoring of cells. According the to the C&EN article “It permits many different types of measurements, such as single cell diagnostic tests or drug testing.”

* unfortunately this article currently appears to be behind a paywall.

 

Modern Medicine & Family Histories Michael Edmonds Dec 29

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Modern medical treatments, including vaccines, have helped extend life expectancies and quality of life through the prevention and treatment of disease. This fact is sometimes missed by those who oppose vaccines, criticise modern medicine and promote dubious “alternative” therapies. One reason for not seeing the benefits of modern medicine is that we take much of it for granted, and seldom see the effects of diseases of the past.

I have recently had the privilege of reading a family history of my great, great, great grandparents, James and Gerinia Ryan, and their descendants, put together by Eleanor Watt. It is fascinating reading, and also sobering when considering the deaths of four of their 15 children who did not make it past the age of 5.

George Edward Ryan died in July 1871 at 15 months of age from bronchitis

John Albert Ryan died in April 1878 at 13 months of age from deutitis (inflammation of the gums) and bronchitis

Jane Isabella Ryan died in June 1884 at 4 years of age from measles and pleurisy

Gerinia Eliza Ethel Ryan died in July 1884 at 9 months of age from measles and bronchitis

Critics of modern medicine often focus on diseases we have yet to find cures for, but in doing so they ignore the many successes – if born today the diseases which took these children’s lives are readily treatable.

I wonder what critics of modern medicine would find if they looked closely their family histories? How many relatives might they have lost to diseases now readily treatable?

Prestigious Award goes to Auckland Chemistry Professor Michael Edmonds Nov 05

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For a small country New Zealand has some impressive, internationally recognised research going on. One example is the work being done by Professor Bill Denny and his colleagues at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC). Since 1956 this centre has published close to 1000 papers in international  journals and has over 100 patents for new anti-cancer drugs.

Leading the medicinal chemistry side of this research Professor Denny has played a major role in the many successes of this research centre.

As recognition for this work, Professor Denny has just been awarded the American Chemical Society’s Division of Medicinal Chemistry Award for his outstanding contributions to the field. This prestigious award is awarded biennially, and previous awardees include at least one Nobel laureate. It is highly unusual for this award to go to a researcher’s working outside of the USA, which speaks volumes about Professor Denny’s international reputation as a medicinal chemist.

The following clip outlines some the impressive work that the ACSRC has been involved in.

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Congratulations to Professor Denny for this well deserved award.

Scientists & Engineers on Company Boards Michael Edmonds Aug 11

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As Fonterra continues to deal with the fall out from the botulinum contamination scare, it has been suggested that New Zealand companies such as Fonterra might benefit from having scientists or engineers on their Boards of Directors.

In an interview on The Nation this weekend Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Professor of Agribusiness at the University of Waikato, spoke about Fonterra’s recent challenges, and how scientific representation on their Board might have been an advantage – having someone who could quickly understand and explain the difference between bacteria, spores and toxins, for example.

Over the past 5 years, Fonterra have faced a number of science related challenges – the melamine scare, detection of DCD in milk powder and now the botulium spore incident. In the wake of these issues perhaps a little science & engineering at the top, to complement the business and industry knowledge of Boards might be more appealing in the future?

Note – At the time of writing this Professor Rowarth’s interview is not available on line, but I suspect it will appear here in the next few days.

What’s the Difference between Science and Pseudoscience? Part 2 Michael Edmonds Jul 10

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In a previous blog I suggested that one difference between science and pseudoscience is that pseudoscience can’t move on when evidence comes along which disproves its’ ideas: science does.

Another difference is that science attempts to, and is usually successful, in working out the underlying mechanism to explain the evidence.

Take for example the field of medicine. Early explanations of disease tended to blame it on vengeful gods, evil spirits or on “bad air”. When various herbal or mineral medicines were found to have some beneficial effects, the treatments were thought to work by either pleasing the gods or repelling the evil spirits or bad air, and were often administered with incantations.

As time progressed, observations seemed to suggest that many diseases resulted from disruptions within the body itself. Using the limited knowledge of the time disease was viewed by the Greeks as an imbalance of the four humours (phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile), while in Ayurvedic medicine it was viewed as an imbalance of three elemental substances. Treatments therefore sought to rebalance these humours/elements in various ways, some more harmful than others (e.g. bloodletting to remove “excess” blood).

Incredibly the idea of humours prevailed through to the 19th century, and was only disposed off when scientific discovery revealed the real causes of disease.

In 1747, Scottish Naval surgeon, James Lind carried out the first recorded clinical study to discover that the disease scurvy was a deficiency disease which could be treated by consumption of citrus fruit.

The work of Ignaz Semmelweiss, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Pasteur demonstrated that many diseases were caused by microbes which could be killed through the use of antiseptics such as carbolic acid, while Paul Ehrlich develop stains which allowed some of these microbes to be studied under the microscope. By the end of the 19th century many disease causing microbes had been discovered.

The determination of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick opened the door to a better understanding of genetic based diseases, including various cancers, while the development of fields such as biochemistry and molecular biology has revealed the biochemical pathways which can be targeted for treating various diseases caused by errant genetic instructions or by microbes.

The development of techniques which can monitor the environment around us has also revealed how environmental contamination can cause some diseases. Minamata disease, for example, results from high levels of mercury poisoning.

As we move into the 21st century we now understand that diseases can be caused by microbes, genetic malfunctions, environmental contaminants and sometime by deficiencies in various essential substances. An understanding of the biochemistry/ molecular genetics of the diseases also helps us develop targeted approaches to treatment, particularly in the design of new drugs.

If we compare this to various pseudoscientific therapies, their mechanisms have been disproven (Ayurvedic medicine), are contrary to scientific understanding (homeopathy, astrology based herbalism) or both (reikki, faith healing). Other pseudoscientific beliefs can also arise from ignoring the evidence and claiming one cause while ignoring those supported by the evidence (e.g. suggesting that HIV can be treated by vitamins rather than with antiretroviral drugs).

Medical treatments which are supported by evidence and a clear understanding of the underlying biological mechanisms not only provide a better understanding of the disease, they also provide clues to appropriate cures, a claim that cannot be made by pseudoscientific treatments such as homeopathy, reikki, faith healing and Ayurvedic “medicine”.

 

 

 

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