Sunday, September 30, 2007

UK govt: Creationism doesn't belong in classroom

The UK government has issued new guidelines that explicitly state that both creationism and it's slicker, hipper cousin, intelligent design, are not science and do not belong in the classroom. You can read the guidelines for yourself here.

Guardian reporter James Randerson provides a nice overview here. And the Panda's Thumb offers this take on the situation.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stellar Explosion

NASA describes this image captured by the Hubble telescope as depicting "the delicate filaments debris from a stellar explosion in a neighboring galaxy."

For a more thorough explanation, head here.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Astrophysicists watch football?

This is old news in the football world, but a lot of teams --NFL and college-- could probably benefit from this program developed by an astrophysicist, which seeks to tell coaches what play gives them the best shot at winning. And it's particularly topical since we're headed into a weekend full of college ball on Saturday and pro ball on Sunday. For those who don't feel like reading, click on the video for a brief clip that will explain everything you need to know about the Zeus program.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Another nail in the coffin for vaccine-autism link

The CDC reported today that a study found little evidence to indicate the vaccine preservative, thimerosal (which contains mercury), caused significant neurological problems in children.

The findings suggest "the higher thimerosal content that vaccines had back in the 1990s did not lead to harmful effects in children in performance on standardized testing at age seven to 10," according to Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The study did not look specifically at autism (a separate CDC study is focused on that specific condition), but
it used several tests to examine the effects of thimerosal exposure on intelligence, speech, language and motor skills in children between the ages of seven and 10.

Dr. Schuchat again:
"Some of the results suggested that exposure to higher thimerosal quantities led to better performance. And some of the tests showed that exposure to higher thimerosal content led to worse performance. So the totality of the results are quite reassuring and suggest continued to reaffirm the safety of vaccines."

In other words, if thimerosal levels obtained through childhood vaccinations had a significant impact on mental functioning and/or autism, the study should have found a general trend towards worse performance among kids who had exposure to higher levels of the preservative. The study didn't find that, so we can conclude from that thimerosal, at least at the levels kids would receive through vaccination, poses little, if any, risk. Of course, this is no longer a concern because thimerosal has been eliminated from most childhood vaccines.

But those who remained convinced vaccines play a role in causing autism (in spite of any credible scientific evidence supporting this dubious connection) were unswayed and I'm sure their reports attacking the study on various, probably misguided and misinterpreted, grounds will soon be forthcoming.

But as the vaccine-autism believers clamor about unsubstantiated government cover-ups or researchers' ties to pharmaceutical companies, they usually fail to acknowledge the overwhelming, life-saving benefit of vaccines or the many studies refuting any connection between autism and vaccines, which always makes me wonder about their real motivations.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Supplements recalled because they might actually work

In the unregulated, charlatan-filled world of dietary supplements, there's no telling what's in a bottle of pills. So perhaps it's not surprising that the FDA recently recalled two dietary supplements not because they were ineffective, but rather because they might actually deliver on their marketing promises.

The supplements in question, Axcil and Desirin, were pulled because they contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in the erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra. Supplements can't contain drugs because that would make them, well, drugs, not supplements. Of course if they contained medications, they might actually have some medical benefit too, but that might be asking too much from the crazy world of supplements, where claims of effectiveness are allowed but proof is not required.

According to the Axcil website, which has now been taken down, the supplement "is a scientifically formulated, breakthrough dietary supplement containing a proprietary standardized botanical extract that acts synergistically to promote erectile function and sexual desire in men." We know Viagra works quite well for this, so delete the "botanical extract" nonsense and technically this becomes a legitimate claim, just so long as they're illegally including sildenafil in their supplement pills.

Desirin makes a similar pitch, except it's targeted at women. But we know Viagra helps promote sexual function in females too, so again, this is essentially a legitimate claim.

To put this situation in other terms, the FDA seemed to have no problem when Axcil and Desirin were on the market with their unproven claims. It was only when the supplements actually contained a medication that might help -- Viagra -- that the FDA objected.

It should also be noted that even if the "proprietary standardized botanical extract" that was supposedly in these supplements had been shown in legitimate scientific studies to have some medical benefit without the addition of Viagra, this still wouldn't mean much for consumers. Supplements are not regulated, which means consumers have no way of knowing if the supplement they purchase in a store is the same compound used in the research.

The substance in the bottle could differ in concentration or the amount of active ingredients. The supplements could even contain no active ingredient. Or dirt. Or pocket lint. Who knows, maybe pocket lint actually does help treat cancer symptoms. I can at least make that claim on a bottle of pocket lint pills. Just so long as my supplements don't contain any actual anti-cancer medications, presumably the FDA won't stop me.

Of course, this isn't the FDA's fault. Their hands have been bound by Congress, which in an act of stupidity unbelievable even for Capitol Hill, passed a law keeping FDA out of supplements and allowing manufacturers to sell dietary supplements without proving either their safety or their effectiveness. This might be a good reason to steer clear of supplements, but unfortunately millions of Americans can't resist the Siren C of this industry, which racks up billions of dollars per year peddling substances that may be worthless or even dangerous. Anybody want to buy some pocket lint?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Flaring temper may hurt the heart

Myriad adages warn against losing one's temper and it turns out they may have been on to something. A new study found that middle-aged men who are prone to bouts of anger face an increased risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease. Moreover, stress may play havoc with the heart in both men and women; the study found that middle-aged people of both gender who reported long-term stress had a heightened risk of developing heart disease.

The findings, which appears in the September/October issue of the Annals of Family Medicine, suggest that treatment for anger and stress could have the additional benefit of reducing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

3D images help identify toxic effects of alcohol

Fetal alcohol syndrome, which results from mothers drinking excessively during pregnancy, consists of a variety of mental and physical birth defects caused by alcohol's impact on the development of the fetus. The most effective therapies for the condition depend on an early diagnosis, but finding reliable ways to determine who is affected has been challenging. Now a new study indicates 3D images of the face -- known as computerized craniofacial anthropometry -- may make it easy for physicians to diagnose fetal alcohol syndrome in babies and could even lead to treatments for reversing the damage and a better understanding of how alcohol affects the developing body.

The findings appear in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

A face only a mother (bat) could love

Steve Gschmeissner's photo of a bat face, which was titled appropriately enough "Bat Face," won the Visions of Science & Technology Photographic Awards. For the rest of the very cool winning photos, go here.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Another HIV vaccine bites the dust. Bring in the cats

Merck's experimental HIV vaccine, like several others that came before it, has proven to be ineffective at preventing infection with the deadly virus. So it may be time for scientists to bite the bullet and adopt the approach used by the cat vaccine for FIV, the feline equivalent of HIV.

For the most part, scientists have resisted the approach used in the FIV vaccine for developing inoculations for use in humans because it utilizes the whole-virus. While this could stimulate a better immune response and offer greater protection from infection, there's the small chance that some of the virus may survive inactivation processes and could actually infect people.

The possibility, no matter how small, that somebody could get infected from a vaccine that's intended to protect is an ethical risk the medical community in general cannot take. But if a whole-virus vaccine could actually prevent infection and spare human life, wouldn't the greater ethical lapse be opting not to pursue this strategy, particularly in light of evidence indicating the global AIDS epidemic may be getting worse?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Maybe you should ignore this

Everybody knows Americans are desperate for health information and avidly seek it out on the web. Now a new survey shows most people are skeptical about the quality of the information they're finding. The surprisingly bad news is that the majority of the skeptics still follow the questionable advice anyway.

NASA restarts black hole mission

This is an interesting story, but the best reason for linking to this is that it gives me an excuse to put up a really cool picture of a black hole:

Friday, September 21, 2007

Marijuana and your wallet

I don't smoke or use marijuana myself, but I favor legalizing the drug, if for no other reason than its unique medicinal benefits. But economics may be a good reason too.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine carries an article by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, arguing for legalizing marijuana and other illicit drugs because the "war on drugs" is a losing battle, both in terms of users and dollars.

According to Nadelmann, governments around the world dole out "probably at least $100 billion a year" in their failed policies to combat illicit drug use. The United States accounts for nearly half of the expenditure.

This is contrasted with the value of the global illegal drug market, which is estimated to be $400 billion, or approximately four times the amount governments are spending. Considering the ready availability of illegal drugs (ads like this and this regularly appear on craigslist) and the number of addicts, it's pretty clear the illegal drug industry is winning this battle hands down. This means the $100 billion outlaid by governments amounts to nothing more than a colossal waste that does nothing to prohibit drug use.

What Nadelmann doesn't mention is the failed "drug war" may also be preventing people from obtaining the medical benefits of marijuana. The drug's benefits include relieving pain that other medications fail to treat, reducing nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, and helping to resolve symptoms of the eye disease glaucoma.

The Institute of Medicine came to a similar conclusion in its 288 page report on marijuana. But the IoM also noted that anti-drug policies may prevent the development of useful medical therapies derived from marijuana: "There is no guarantee that the fruits of scientific research will be made available to the public for medical use. Cannabinoid-based drugs will only become available if public investment in cannabinoid drug research is sustained and if there is enough incentive for private enterprise to develop and market such drugs."

Sadly, the anti-drug environment is unlikely to change anytime soon. The Supreme Court's 2005 ruling against medical marijuana nearly ensures that. The court in its decision urged Congress to draft legislation making medical marijuana legal, but the stagnancy that prevails above all else on Capitol HIll means little will be done.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Pollution is heart-breaking

Spikes in pollution are associated with an increase in heart attacks and strokes, but scientists have been at a loss to explain the connection. Now a new study in mice may provide the answer.

Researchers found that mice exposed to the microscopic particles that comprise pollution exhibited significant increases in a blood-clotting protein called interleukin-6 in their lungs. An increase in clotting in response to pollution spikes could explain the rise in heart attacks and strokes, as well as provide a target for therapies that may prevent the deleterious effects.

The findings, which will be published online Sept. 20 by the Journal of Clinical Investigation, will appear in the Oct. 1 print edition of the journal.

Tour de France doping decision is another win for bad science

An arbitration panel has ruled against Floyd Landis' appeal to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's charges that he used illegal testosterone in winning the 2006 Tour de France.

The panel voted 2-1 to find Landis guilty of doping, meaning he must forfeit his title to the Tour de France and face a 2-year ban from cycling.

The only person who knows for certain whether Landis doped is Landis himself. It's out of character for him and I want to believe that he didn't use testosterone. But even if he did, the result of the vicious legal battle in this case reveals that the science of USADA's system for detecting dopers is terribly flawed, unreliable and should be immediately remedied, particularly in light of how speculation about doping has damaged the sport of cycling in the public's eye.

Even the two panel members who voted to find Landis guilty were troubled by USADA's sloppy procedures.

"The Panel finds that the practises of the Lab in training its employees appears to lack the vigor the Panel would expect in the circumstances given the enormous consequences to athletes" of an adverse analytical finding, they stated in their decision. "If such practises continue, it may well be that in the future, an error like this could result in the dismissal" of a positive finding by the lab.

Importantly, the initial screening test used on Landis' sample --something called the testosterone-to-epitestosterone test -- was not done properly.

Chris Campbell, the lone dissenting arbitrator who voted to find Landis not guilty, noted that this initial T-E test is much simpler to perform than the follow-up test, called IRMS, which was relied upon to find Landis guilty.

"If the LNDD (the lab that performed the tests) couldn't get the T-E ratio test right, how can a person have any confidence that LNDD got the much more complicated IRMS test correct?" Campbell wrote.

But the authorities overseeing cycling and USADA appeared unfazed by the shoddy testing system, so busy were they jubilantly celebrating the conviction of a man who very well be innocent for all we can tell from the scientific facts of the case.

Pat McQuaid, leader of UCI, the cycling's world governing body, even criticized Landis' use of science to defend himself. "He got a highly qualified legal team who tried to baffle everybody with science."

You may find science baffling, Mr. McQuaid, but how else should we determine who's doped and who hasn't? Should we resort to the flip of a coin? Unless improvements are made to USADA's testing, this might actually be more accurate.

USADA CEO Travis Tygart said, "Today's ruling is a victory for all clean athletes and everyone who values fair and honest competition."

Tygart couldn't be further off the mark. Clean athletes should have the confidence that their test results will come back negative, and as it stands now, there's no assurance of that at all.

If Tygart really wanted to ensure "fair and honest competition," he'd be taking steps to improve the shoddy science that seems to pervade the USADA's testing system. Until that happens, we have to assume the only thing USADA is interested in is finding positive results, regardless of whether the cyclist actually doped or not. That's not good for cycling, the individual athletes or the public's perception of the sport.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Stem cells: 6 years later and back to the future

In a press release largely ignored by the media, the NIH said this week it will begin implementing President Bush's executive order to support research looking into potential alternatives for generating embryonic stem cells that don't require the destruction or harm of a human embryo.

While this sounds promising, this is as backwards as it gets in the science realm. Typically, the federal government will fund basic biomedical research, such as stem cells, that is not far enough along to interest private companies. Once the research has reached a level showing its promise, private firms, such as pharmaceutical and biotech companies, generally step in and move the research towards commercial products.

However, due to Bush's opposition to stem cell research, he's effectively caused the process to work in reverse. Since his limits on federal funding for stem cell research were imposed in 2001, private firms, such as Advanced Cell Technology, and individual scientists have been forced to explore alternative methods of stem cell production, wasting time and resources that could've been better spent on exploring the therapeutic potential of stem cells.

Scientists using private funding have developed several alternatives for obtaining embryonic stem cells, including a biopsy -- or plucking out a single cell -- from an embryo, and reprogramming adult cells back to an embryonic-like state. The NIH, which isn't convinced these strategies are feasible even though the biopsy technique is used regularly at fertilization clinics, plans to take a thorough look at these techniques.

But get this, the agency, faced with this highly controversial field that director Elias Zirhouni describes as "one of the central scientific challenges of our time," isn't even sure what research its already funded in this area or how it should go about assessing the potential of these alternative techniques. Instead, it will need to establish a special workshop to tell it what it should already know. According to the press release: "The NIH will undertake a comprehensive research portfolio review to determine what research NIH is currently supporting in this area and convene a state-of-the-science workshop to identify the key questions."

I'm not entirely sure but this sounds like nothing more than bureaucratic delay, which the Bush administration has consistently used to stymie science and medicine it opposes, such as the Plan B pill and global warming. This is disappointing because it suggests Bush's executive order is more hype than substance.

But there is a bright spot. The NIH is opening the possibility that new stem cell lines created by these alternative methods could be added to its registry of embryonic stem cell lines that meet Bush's arbitrary criteria for federal funding.

With any luck, we could see an advance in the state of embryonic stem cell research and maybe in another couple of years we'll be where we should've been five years ago. Back to the future, here we come.

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