Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Friday, October 31, 2008
by Jerry Coyne, The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Jerry Coyne
Professor in the University of Chicago's Department of Ecology and Evolution
Enough already. I bit my tongue when I heard that Sarah Palin believed that dinosaurs and humans once lived side by side and that she and John McCain wanted creationism taught in the public schools.
And I just shook my head when McCain derided proposed funding for a sophisticated planetarium projection machine as wasteful spending on an "overhead projector."
But the Republican ticket's war on science has finally gone too far. Last week, Sarah Palin dissed research on fruit flies.
In her usual faux-folksy style, Palin lit out after a congressional earmark involving these insects: "You've heard about some of these pet projects - they really don't make a whole lot of sense - and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." (Reading this diatribe is not sufficient; only video reveals the scorn and condescension dripping from her words.)
As a geneticist, I've worked on fruit flies in the laboratory for three decades. I know the fruit fly. The fruit fly is a friend of mine. And believe me, Sarah Palin doesn't know anything about fruit flies.
The research Palin attacked was a perfectly valid project designed to protect American growers from the olive fruit fly, a destructive pest. But fruit-fly research is good for far more than that.
The fruit fly is what we call a "model organism." Since all animals partake of a common evolutionary history, we share basic features of physiology, development and biochemistry. And because flies are easy to study, quick to breed in the lab, and cheaper than chimps and mice, we can often use them as models for things that go wrong (or right) in our own species.
For example, most of what we know about how genes are passed on in humans came from breeding studies of fruit flies - work for which T.H. Morgan won a Nobel Prize in 1933. (This included work on the effects of abnormal numbers of chromosomes, the cause of Down syndrome.) Since then, three other Nobel Prizes in medicine or physiology have gone for research on fruit flies. This work has given insights into how bodies are built and how learning might occur.
The flies are models for disease, too, producing possibilities for curing epilepsy, Alzheimer's and, yes, one of Palin's favorite causes, autism.
Why are the Republican candidates so contemptuous of science? I suppose it's part of their general attack on "elitism," which has been surprisingly effective. We white-coated nerds in our labs, fooling around with flies at taxpayer expense, are easy targets.
But America can't afford cheap shots at science, because a lot of basic research has immense implications for human welfare - even if ignorant politicians can make it sound silly. Work on fruit flies is just one example.
This year's Republican campaign has consistently attacked the values of reason and logic that undergird our democracy. If anything has led to America's high standard of living and world preeminence, it's the idea that we can advance only with the best science possible.
When Palin declares that we don't have to know what causes global warming in order to fix it, she's not only exposing herself as a scientific illiterate; she's going against two centuries of American progress in technology, medicine and science. Trying to bond with the American people by taking pride in your ignorance and making science the common enemy - now that's a bridge to nowhere.
Jerry Coyne wrote the forthcoming "Why Evolution is True." His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Afghan student gets 20 years instead of death for blasphemy
by Los Angeles Times
An Afghanistan appeals court overturns the death sentence for Parwez Kambakhsh, who circulated an article about the rights of women under Islam.
By Laura King
October 22, 2008
Reported from Kabul, Afghanistan -- In a case that has illustrated Afghanistan's drift toward a more radically conservative brand of Islam as well as the fragility of its legal system, an appeals court Tuesday overturned a death sentence for a student convicted of blasphemy but sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
The student, Parwez Kambakhsh, 24, ran afoul of Afghan authorities last year when he circulated an article about women's rights under Islam after downloading it from the Internet. He was studying at the time in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where he also worked as a part-time journalist for local newspapers.
Arrested by security police and initially held without charges, he was eventually tried on blasphemy charges, convicted and sentenced to death.
Tuesday's ruling by a three-judge appeals court panel was a blow to human rights groups and advocates of press freedom who have championed Kambakhsh's cause.
International organizations, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the case pointed to a troubling lack of respect for freedom of speech and individual liberties in Afghanistan, nearly seven years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban fundamentalist Islamic movement.
Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the sentencing "ridiculous" and said it was in some ways a more serious setback than a judicial reaffirmation of the death penalty, on which Afghan President Hamid Karzai would have had to sign off.
"In a way, this is arguably worse for him," Adams said in a phone interview from New York. "This was an opportunity to undo kangaroo-court justice. . . . It shows Afghanistan is not making progress on anything to do with the judiciary."
Religious conservatives had welcomed the earlier sentence against Kambakhsh. After the death penalty was handed down at his January trial, public demonstrations were held in support of the decision, and some prominent clerics declared he deserved to be executed for violating the teachings of Islam.
Kambakhsh can still appeal to the Supreme Court, but that will be his final recourse. He has insisted on his innocence.
"I don't accept the court's decision," he told the Associated Press as he left the courtroom after Tuesday's ruling. "It is an unfair decision."
Kambakhsh's supporters have said the case should be thrown out because the previous trial was held in secret and he was denied legal representation, not uncommon occurrences in Afghan courts. Reformers say the case exemplifies the continuing failure of the Afghan government to establish a free and independent judiciary.
Family members have said Kambakhsh was beaten and threatened with death until he signed a confession and that local journalists who expressed support for him were warned they would be arrested if they persisted.
Kambakhsh's journalist brother, Yaqoub Ibrahimi, has said he believes the blasphemy charges were a pretext and that Ibrahimi was the authorities' real target because of articles he wrote about abuses by local warlords and militias.
King is a Times staff writer.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Sunday, October 19, 2008
I just found the following article at the Skeptics Society website and thought it to be just wonderful.
A hospital ER that I worked at a few years ago actually had on-call acupuncturists available for pain control. A remotely careful review of available data would have shown this to be an incredible waste of time and of the money of both patients and insurance companies... Anything to make a buck, I suppose. Either way, I was very glad to see this article; it is very clear in bringing to light a quackery that has somehow found its way into the mainstream and been able to be presented as a well tested medical treatment.
Puncturing the Acupuncture Myth
by Harriet Hall, M.D.
BY DEFINITION, “ALTERNATIVE” MEDICINE CONSISTS OF TREATMENTS THAT HAVE NOT BEEN SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN and that have not been accepted into mainstream medicine. The question I keep hearing is, “But what about acupuncture? It’s been proven to work, it’s supported by lots of good research, more and more doctors are using it, and insurance companies even pay for it.” It’s time the acupuncture myth was punctured — preferably with an acupuncture needle. Almost everything you’ve heard about acupuncture is wrong.
To start with, this ancient Chinese treatment is not so ancient and may not even be Chinese! From studying the earliest documents, Chinese scholar Paul Unschuld suspects the idea may have originated with the Greek Hippocrates of Cos and later spread to China. It’s definitely not 3000 years old. The earliest Chinese medical texts, from the 3rd century BCE, do not mention it. The earliest reference to “needling” is from 90 BCE, but it refers to bloodletting and lancing abscesses with large needles or lancets. There is nothing in those documents to suggest anything like today’s acupuncture. We have the archaeological evidence of needles from that era — they are large; the technology for manufacturing thin steel needles appropriate for acupuncture didn’t exist until about 400 years ago.
The earliest accounts of Chinese medicine reached the West in the 13th century: they didn’t mention acupuncture at all. The first Westerner to write about acupuncture, Wilhelm ten Rhijn, in 1680, didn’t describe acupuncture as we know it today: he didn’t mention specific points or “qi;” he spoke of large gold needles that were implanted deep into the skull or “womb” and left in place for 30 respirations.
Acupuncture was tried off and on in Europe after that. It was first tried in America in 1826 as a possible means of resuscitating drowning victims. They couldn’t get it to work and “gave up in disgust.” I imagine sticking needles in soggy dead bodies was pretty disgusting.
Through the early 20th century, no Western account of acupuncture referred to acupuncture points: needles were simply inserted near the point of pain. Qi was originally vapor arising from food, and meridians were channels or vessels. A Frenchman, Georges Soulie de Morant, was the first to use the term “meridian” and to equate qi with energy — in 1939. Auricular (ear) acupuncture was invented by a Frenchman in 1957.
The Chinese government tried to ban acupuncture several times, between 1822 and World War II during the time of the Chinese Nationalist government. Mao revived it in the “barefoot doctor” campaign in the 1960s as a cheap way of providing care to the masses; he did not use it himself because he did not believe it worked. It was Mao’s government that coined the term “traditional Chinese medicine” or TCM.
In 1972 James Reston accompanied Nixon to China and returned to tell about his appendectomy. It was widely believed that his appendix was removed under acupuncture anesthesia. In reality, acupuncture was used only as an adjunct for pain relief the day after surgery, and the relief was probably coincident with the expected return of normal bowel motility. A widely circulated picture of a patient allegedly undergoing open heart surgery with acupuncture anesthesia was shown to be bogus. If acupuncture is used in surgery today, it is used along with conventional anesthesia and/or pre-operative medication, and it is selected only for patients who believe in it and are likely to have a placebo response.
As acupuncture increased in popularity in the West, it declined in the East. In 1995, visiting American physicians were told only 15–20% of Chinese chose TCM, and it was usually used along with Western treatments after diagnosis by a Western-trained physician. Apparently some patients choose TCM because it is all they can afford: despite being a Communist country, China does not have universal health coverage.
There were originally 360 acupuncture points (loosely based on the number of days in a year rather than on anatomy). Currently more than 2000 acupuncture points have been “discovered”, leading one wag to comment that there was no skin left that was not an acupuncture point. There were either 9, 10, or 11 meridians — take your pick. Any number is as good as another, because no research has ever been able to document the existence of acupuncture points or meridians or qi.
Does acupuncture work? Which type of acupuncture? And what do you mean by “work”? There are various different Chinese systems, plus Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indian modalities, most of which have been invented over the last few decades: whole body or limited to the scalp, hand, ear, foot, or cheek and chin; deep or superficial; with electrified needles; with dermal pad electrodes and no skin penetration.
Acupuncture works in the same manner that placebos work. It has been shown to “work” to relieve pain, nausea, and other subjective symptoms, but it has never been shown to alter the natural history or course of any disease. Today it’s mostly used for pain, but early Chinese acupuncturists maintained that it was not for the treatment of manifest disease, that it was so subtle that it should only be employed at the very beginning of a disease process, and that it was only likely to work if the patient believed it would work. Now there’s a bit of ancient wisdom!
Studies have shown that acupuncture releases natural opioid pain relievers in the brain: endorphins. Veterinarians have pointed out that loading a horse into a trailer or throwing a stick for a dog also releases endorphins. Probably hitting yourself on the thumb with a hammer would release endorphins too, and it would take your mind off your headache.
Psychologists can list plenty of other things that could explain the apparent response to acupuncture. Diverting attention from original symptoms to the sensation of needling, expectation, suggestion, mutual consensus and compliance demand, causality error, classic conditioning, reciprocal conditioning, operant conditioning, operator conditioning, reinforcement, group consensus, economic and emotional investment, social and political disaffection, social rewards for believing, variable course of disease, regression to the mean — there are many ways human psychology can fool us into thinking ineffective treatments are effective. Then there’s the fact that all placebos are not equal — an elaborate system involving lying down, relaxing, and spending time with a caring authority can be expected to produce a much greater placebo effect than simply taking a sugar pill.
There are plenty of studies showing that acupuncture works for subjective symptoms like pain and nausea. But there are several things that throw serious doubt on their findings. The results are inconsistent, with some studies finding an effect and others not. The higher quality studies are less likely to find an effect. Most of the studies are done by believers in acupuncture. Many subjects would not volunteer for an acupuncture trial unless they had a bias towards believing it might work. The acupuncture studies coming from China and other oriental countries are all positive — but then nearly everything coming out of China is positive. It’s not culturally acceptable to publish negative results because researchers would lose face and their jobs.
The biggest problem with acupuncture studies is finding an adequate placebo control. You’re sticking needles in people. People notice that. Double blinding is impossible: you might be able to fool patients into thinking you’ve used a needle when you haven’t, but there’s no way to blind the person doing the needling. Two kinds of controls have been used: comparing acupuncture points to non-points, and using an ingenious needle in a sheath that appears to have penetrated the skin when it hasn’t.
In George Ulett’s research, he found that applying an electrical current to the skin of the wrist — a kind of TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) treatment — worked just as well as inserting needles, and one point on the wrist worked for symptoms anywhere in the body.
Guess what? It doesn’t matter where you put the needle. It doesn’t matter whether you use a needle at all. In the best controlled studies, only one thing mattered: whether the patients believed they were getting acupuncture. If they believed they got the real thing, they got better pain relief — whether they actually got acupuncture or not! If they got acupuncture but believed they didn’t, it didn’t work. If they didn’t get it but believed they did, it did work.
Acupuncturists have used ingenious rationalizations to try to salvage failed studies. In a recent study using sham acupuncture as a control, both the sham placebo acupuncture and the true acupuncture worked equally well; both were better than no treatment. The obvious conclusion was that acupuncture was no better than a placebo. Instead, the researchers insisted that real acupuncture worked and that placebo acupuncture worked too! Another acupuncture researcher recently decided not to use a placebo control in his research because any stimulation of the skin might be effective — which seems to me to pretty much destroy the whole rationale for acupuncture, but he didn’t seem to notice that. If that were true, we could just caress or massage our patients instead of inserting needles and postulating imaginary qi and meridians.
Considering the inconsistent research results, the implausibility of qi and meridians, and the many questions that remain, it’s reasonable to conclude that acupuncture is nothing more than a recipe for an elaborate placebo seasoned with a soupçon of counter-irritant. You can play human pincushion if you want, and you might get a good placebo response, but there’s no evidence you’ll get anything more.
Note: Part of this article was adapted from a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the late Dr. Robert Imrie. It’s well worth a visit; it includes great pictures of camelpuncture, goatpuncture, and chickenpuncture.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
This garbage is highly offensive to ANY parent who spends the bulk of their time with their child, not to mention any woman, period. It suggests that a man is competent enough to work and earn money, but it is definitely good enough for a woman to, as this man who has apparently spent a bit too much time at McDonald's suggests, sit on HER backside (and raise children) and let her husband support her.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Monday, October 13, 2008
To cast an educated vote on stem cells, voters in Michigan and beyond must understand a complex, fast-emerging new field of medicine – no easy task. Stem cell research is generating great interest and investment worldwide because it could lead to possible treatments for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, juvenile diabetes and other diseases. But some aspects of embryonic stem cell research may pose an ethical or moral dilemma for some people.
The main thing is to understand the goals of stem cell research and to sort out fact from fiction. There are several key facts that citizens can keep in mind as they navigate through a flood of often conflicting information about stem cell research, say University of Michigan stem cell scientists Sean Morrison, Ph.D., and Sue O’Shea, Ph.D. Morrison directs the Center for Stem Cell Biology at U-M’s Life Sciences Institute and is a faculty member at the U-M Medical School. O’Shea directs the Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research at the Medical School.
Here are the five key things they feel every voter should know about stem cells:
1. Scientists generally agree it’s crucial to push forward rapidly in all three key areas of stem cell research: embryonic stem cells, tissue/adult stem cells and induced pluripotent (or “reprogrammed”) stem cells.
Around the world, these three kinds of stem cells are under intense study for possible treatments for conditions from spinal cord injuries to juvenile diabetes. It would be shortsighted to pursue only one kind, O’Shea says, because each may hold particular promise for understanding and treating specific diseases. “Results in one area of research will continue to shed light on work in the others,” she notes.
Some intriguing new studies suggest that understanding how embryonic stem cells behave will bring new insights into cancer. And learning how embryonic stem cells can go awry may make it possible to intervene and avoid birth defects.
Morrison observes that much of the attention has focused on embryonic stem cells.
“Embryonic stem cells are one type of stem cell that people are very excited about because these are cells that come from the very earliest stages of embryonic development, from microscopically small clumps of cells. And these cells have the capacity to make every cell type in the body in unlimited quantities,” he says. “So, when you’re trying to cure a public health problem, the capacity of embryonic stem cells to make any cell type in unlimited quantities is a powerful advantage.”
2. Embryonic stem cells that scientists study come from early-stage embryos.
These embryos are created in fertility clinics for the purpose of fertility treatment. But for a variety of reasons, not all embryos can be used for fertility treatment, and many embryos are discarded. In Michigan, it currently is legal to discard embryos that cannot be used for fertility treatment. It is not, however, legal to use them in medical research that might help patients. Proposal 2 would give patients the option of donating for medical research embryos that cannot be used for fertility treatment and would otherwise be discarded. Many of these surplus embryos, which number about 400,000 nationwide, are otherwise discarded.
“The embryos that are used for research are microscopically small clumps of cells, smaller than the period at the end of a sentence on a piece of paper,” says Morrison. “They have no specialized tissues of any type; there’s no nervous system, there’s no heart, there are no limbs. These are clumps of cells that oftentimes in a fertility clinic don’t develop in a healthy manner and that doctors would not be willing to implant in patients.”
Scientists in most states, but not Michigan, are allowed to use embryos from these clinics to create stem cell lines and develop disease therapies in their laboratories.
Things are moving fast in the embryonic stem cell field. Clinical trials — research studies involving human patients — are expected to begin in the next few years for embryonic stem cell-based treatments for juvenile diabetes, macular degeneration and spinal paralysis.
The cells scientists use come from embryos just five days after fertilization. Embryos at this stage, called blastocysts, are spheres containing about 100 cells that have not yet differentiated into more specialized cells. If some of these cells are placed in a lab dish in the right conditions, they can become stem cell lines that can be maintained indefinitely in an undifferentiated state, or guided to become specific types of cells.
Scientists want to use these embryonic cells because they have the capacity to turn into any of the 200 cell types in the body. These “master cells” promise to provide large enough quantities of specialized nerve, pancreas or other cells to effectively help patients whose own cells are not functioning.
3. Adult stem cells are like supporting actors in the quest for stem cell treatments.
Adult stem cells are more specialized cells that arise from embryonic stem cells. Also known as tissue-specific stem cells, they are present in adults – but contrary to their name, they’re also found in children, newborn infants and developing fetuses. They have the ability to make one or two kinds of cells, such as blood and immune system cells, brain or muscle cells. Adult stem cells have a more limited capacity to replace themselves than do embryonic stem cells.
Says Morrison, “There are many different types of adult stem cells present throughout our tissues. They differ from embryonic stem cells in that they’re already partially specialized, so that blood-forming stem cells in the bone marrow can give rise to all types of blood cells, but not to cell types in other tissues. Adult stem cells are still useful, but they’re more specialized than embryonic stem cells and they don’t have the same capacity to give rise to unlimited numbers of specialized cells.”
Decades of work with adult blood stem cells have led to successful bone marrow transplant treatments that are used today to treat people who have leukemia, lymphoma and some inherited blood disorders. Today, blood stem cells can often be isolated from the blood rather than bone marrow.
While adult stem cell research holds much promise, blood stem cells offer the only proven therapies that can be carried out using adult stem cells. The claim that adult stem cells have been used to cure more than 70 diseases has been widely discredited.
Although scientists continue to try to expand the use of adult stem cells, a key limitation remains. So far, it has been very difficult to get many types of adult stem cells to reproduce in sufficient amounts to lead to effective treatments.
4. Induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are adult cells reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.
Recently, Japanese and American scientists have developed a third type of stem cell, which are skin cells that have been “reprogrammed” to be similar to embryonic stem cells.
About these cells, which are called “induced pluripotent cells”, Morrison says, “This is exciting because it will really enhance our ability to study particularly inherited human diseases. But these cells aren’t ready for prime time in terms of clinical use because the reprogramming process involves the use of viruses, which predispose those cells to cancer, and so none of the reprogrammed lines that we have so far at least would ever be usable in patients.”
The discovery of iPS cells demonstrates the promise of embryonic stem cell research to lead to breakthroughs that would change the future of medicine; the ability to reprogram adult human cells was discovered as a result of research on human embryonic stem cells. While iPS cells are an exciting discovery, scientists agree it is too early to assess the technique's full potential and determine whether the reprogrammed cells truly can function the way embryonic stem cells do.
5. Michigan scientists want to explore all types of stem cells to look for treatments or cures. But they currently lack a key tool: the ability to develop their own embryonic stem cell lines.
Most Michigan scientists, along with many Michigan citizens affected by debilitating diseases, want current state law to be changed. If the Proposal 2 ballot initiative passes, the law would change to allow Michigan scientists to do what they currently cannot: develop new embryonic stem cell lines using early-stage embryos from fertilization clinics that would otherwise be discarded.
“Under current law, we in Michigan can study cell lines that are created outside of the state, but we can’t derive our own new lines within the state,” Morrison explains. “That’s a crippling problem because most of the lines that we would like to be able to study, in order to study the diseases that affect the people of Michigan, don’t exist yet.”
O’Shea notes an important fact about Proposal 2: it requires that the allowed embryos are ones that couples designate for research. The proposal outlaws the sale or purchase of embryos for research and states the research needs to abide by federal law.
Here’s the text that Michigan voters will see on their ballots:
A Proposal To Amend The State Constitution To Address Human Embryo And Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research In Michigan
The proposed constitutional amendment would:
Expand use of human embryos for any research permitted under federal law subject to the following limits: the embryos
- are created for fertility treatment purposes;
- are not suitable for implantation or are in excess of clinical needs;
- would be discarded unless used for research;
- were donated by the person seeking fertility treatment.
Provide that stem cells cannot be taken from human embryos more than 14 days after cell division begins.
Prohibits any person from selling or purchasing human embryos for stem cell research.
Prohibits state and local laws that prevent, restrict or discourage stem cell research, future therapies and cures.
Should this proposal be adopted?