Oh those bishops…

Today in the Guardian the religious affairs correspondent reported, with what I hope is apparent irony, yet another absurd statement issued by a subset of the Catholic church. It seems that at the recent Conference of Catholic Bishops in the USA have issued a warning to healthcare workers and chaplains about the dangers of reiki, an alternative Japanese therapy, describing it as lacking scientific credibility and that it could expose people to malevolent forces.

The church’s guidelines apparently state:

A Catholic who puts his or her trust in reiki would be operating in the realms of superstition, the no man’s land that is neither faith nor science. Superstition corrupts one’s worship of God by turning one’s religious feeling and practice in a false direction.

The Catholic church, apparently having no sense of irony, but demonstrating apt use of semantics, clearly feels superstition is a dirt word.

All I can say is that when the Catholic bishops truly understand why they cannot accept any other superstition, they will understand why I don’t accept theirs.


Ozone again…

In today’s Daily Mail, the spurious ‘Good Health’ section features an article entitled, ‘How a shot of ozone can beat backache’. Ozone is something of a buzz word in the alternative therapy/naturopathy circles, where O2 (oxygen) is seen as an amazing cure all (rather than a potential damaging oxidiser), thus O3 (ozone) is king. Ben Goldacre, of the Bad Science blog, has written numerous times about pseudo-scientific ozone treatments.

The difference in this case is that the evidence comes from an 8,000 person meta-study led by Kieran Murphy, MD, at the University of Toronto, analysing results published in similar European treatments, and as such has some degree of validity. Dr Murphy, who performs oxygen/ozone treatments, recently pioneered a medical device for minimally invasion introduction of an oxygen/ozone delivery device to the lumbar discs (the fluid filled spongy spacers between the bones of your spine).

Importantly however, there was a lack of randomised, blinded trials, and there was no control (placebo) group, so it’s difficult to conclude whether any improvements were specifically due to the ozone injections. The placebo effect can be powerful, especially in treatments that involve injections or ‘medical theatre’ (the degree of organisation and preparation before a procedure); Ben Goldacre also writes about such effects.

In January, researchers at the same institution (the University of Toronto) published the results of an 8-week, 3-visit, triple-blinded, randomised controlled clinical trial involving 44 subjects, looking at treatment of hypersensitive teeth with ozone injections. They found that treatment resulted in reduced pain sensation, but that this was indistinguishable from the placebo, demonstrating the patient’s expectation of cure from an invasive practice, or ‘medical theatre’.

Without such controls, it is difficult to conclude whether such therapies are truly effective, though the power of placebo cannot be discounted as having some benefit if it is able to reduce pain.

Fortunately, in the Mail’s article they did offer one paragraph to a Professor of muskuloskeletal medicine at the University of Leeds who welcomed new innovation, but also suggested that the lack of appropriate randomised controlled trials needs to be addressed.

Burns and butter…

Research blogging

An article published this month reviews first aid treatments for burn injuries (Cuttle et al. 2009. Burns: EPub). Having just attended my first-aid re-qualifier I thought I’d take a look.

Review outcome: use cold water (2–15 °C cold water applied for 20 min, if you’re interested)

So no surprises there then.

Amusingly, the reviewers mention that treatment for an acute burn injury was first documented in the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1500 BC):

Treatment involved applying to a burn “on the first day” a mixture of milk from a woman who had just given birth to a son, gum, and ram’s hair, together with a spoken incantation: “Your son Horus has burned himself in the desert. Is water here? There is no water here. Water is in my mouth, a Nile is between my thighs, I have come to put out the fire. Flow out, burn!”. Since that time in history where plant and animal extracts were popular, many other topical treatments have been used, such as vinegar and wine in Roman times, oily mixtures in the 1800s, tannic and picric acids from the early 1900s and finally cold water.

So, assuming you have no lactating women around, no gum, no choice snippets of hair from a Ram, then you can always rely on the incanted threat of having your burn spat on, or pissed on. Invariably over the years, you would be oiled, wined or burned with wood acid or an explosive. I wonder whether there is some sense of irony given that every remedy seems poised to complete the cooking of meat that you’ve already started, complete with some basting?

Finally we get to cold water that, according to the review, has the documented benefits of: decreasing mortality, pain relief, decreasing cell damage, decreasing skin temperature to below dangerous level, decreasing cell metabolism in hypoxic tissue for greater cell survival, stabilising vasculature, reducing oedema, improving wound healing and scar formation and decreasing inflammatory response.

The above is a victory for common sense, and documented evidence-based medicine, rather than the hocus of old. However, the review points out that there continues to be some controversy still as many people prefer the old ‘natural’ and ‘folk’ remedies, despite the lack of documented evidence that they do anything, and in many cases act to delay healing.

Cuttle, L., Pearn, J., McMillan, J., & Kimble, R. (2009). A review of first aid treatments for burn injuries Burns, 35 (6), 768-775 DOI: 10.1016/j.burns.2008.10.011

Why does science matter?…

Alom Shaha, a science teacher at Camden School for Girls in North London, produced an excellent film that asks, and answers, the question ‘Why does science matter?‘ (via Guardian Science Blog).

If nothing else, it might help young scientists articulate an answer when faced with the question; it isn’t enough to have that warm, secure feeling of knowing that science is important in yourself, you need to be able to communicate this without getting bogged down in detail.

Also take a look at Alom’s other science short films.

Sense about science…

On Friday I shall be off to a workshop in Manchester, run by Sense About Science:

Sense About Science is an independent charitable trust. We respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, from scares about plastic bottles, fluoride and the MMR vaccine to controversies about genetic modification, stem cell research and radiation. We work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion.

Our recent and current priorities include alternative medicine, MRI, detox, radiation, health tests, the status of evidence in public health advice, an educational resource on peer review and the public language of science.

The workshop is run as part of the Voice of Young Science programme, aiming to discuss science-related controversies in media reporting and make a greater contribution to public debates.

I shall report back on this at the weekend.


Tomorrow I have a day workshop in nanomedicine. Working in bionanosciences, which is my current gig, I’d like to think I’ll get more out of it than just a free lunch, but we’ll have to see. Nanomedicine is the application of nanoscience to medicine; you’re probably wondering what on Earth nanoscience is? If you know, could you let me know before my boss finds out?

I jest. Actually, a good example of nanomedicine is described in an upcoming publication from Children’s Hospital Boston, where some enterprising chaps (Yung et al.) have developed a blood cleansing device for use in treating sepsis. Sepsis is a lethal systemic bacterial infection that spreads by the blood and rapidly overcomes the body’s defence system. Typical antibiotic therapies are not sufficient as they do not fully eliminate the infection, and the toxin load on the body, both as a result of live bacteria and dying bacteria, can cause systematic organ failure.

The researcher’s approach is to introduce what are called magnetic nanoparticles, spheres that are a few millionths of a millimetre in diameter, into the blood. These nanoparticles have two important properties, besides being extremely small: they can be attracted by a magnet; and the surfaces of each particle can be covered with an antibody (an immune system protein that binds to foreign molecules) that specifically binds a particular bug. In the case of this work, they used antibodies that bind the fungus Candida albicans, which can cause sepsis in people whose immune systems are not functioning.

Continue reading “Nanomedicine…”


For some time now I have have been fascinated by kinetic sculpture; a fusion of art and engineering that demonstrates a high degree of human aesthetic understanding and kineto-mechanical motion. I used to be obsessed with complicated, intricate, interactive, clock-work like mechanisms, but I never had the skill to assemble any of my ideas; about the most I could achieve was a marble (glass ball) mouse race or domino rally. The kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen is a leading proponent and I’ve particularly love his piece Strandbeest, which is a wind-propelled kinetic sculpture.

Continue reading “Kininspirational…”

The great divide…


IN geographic terms, the ‘great divide’ is used to define the point in the USA, roughly following the course of the Rocky Mountains, where on one side a drop of water will run down into the Pacific Ocean, and on the other, it will run down into the Atlantic.

There is however another great divide in the USA, which is between those that have a basic knowledge of the world around them, and those that don’t. The online newszine Science Daily described a recent poll commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences, in which a series of basic questions, designed to assess basic science literacy, were posed to 1,002 adults over a four day period last December. The poll has been ongoing (though in a less rigorous sense) online at the CAS website. The results were as follow:

  • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun [a year, 365 days]
  • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. [Duh]
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water. [where the answer of 65-75& was taken as approx. correct, though 15% gave the correct response of 70%]
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.[!]
  • Less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh [3%]

Hands up who thinks this is unacceptable?

No, it’s not. So why is the USA finding it has a problem with scientific literacy? Well, please just indulge me. Let’s think about Pakistan, where many (though not all) Madrassas (Islamic schools) are engaging in the indoctrination of a new generation of children into fundamentalist rhetoric; this comes at the cost of education that can raise people out of poverty and morbidity; education that gives them some control over their lives. However, for many, Madrassas are the only source of ‘education’. Yet if you speak to a young professional on the street of moderate urban centres such as Karachi, they are not going to present you with the fundamentalist hard-line; they are the lucky few, to have been born into a better area, perhaps to a richer family whom are well educated.

It is not such a great step to see such a partisanship developing in the USA, with the richer, well educated ‘elite’ being outnumbered by those who are disenfranchised from modern successes, scientific discoveries and societal benefits. Those left behind in progress increasingly turn inward toward timeless stalwarts such as the fundamentalist hard-line, which not only serves to widen the gulf to be crossed by communicators of science, but ultimately results in senators, congressmen and governors becoming willing to bow down to public anti-science opinion, i.e. votes, at a government level, thus jeopardising the future scientific and medical progress.

Continue reading “The great divide…”

Three cups of tea….


A Pakistani friend of mine recently lent me a book called ‘Three Cups of Tea’. At the time I had absolutely no idea how famous this book now is, it’s been on the New York Times best sellers list for 109 weeks. Reading it has been a formative experience.

It is the story of Greg Mortenson who, in 1993, after a failed attempt on K2, wandered accidentally into a small Baltistani village in the Karakoram mountains. The name of the village was Korphe (Kor-fay), and his experience here would change his and, by dint of this, tens of thousands of people’s lives in this impoverished region of the North-West frontier of Pakistan. The kindness of the Korphe villagers, their willingness to give Greg so much, when they themselves had so little, truly humbled him; thus prior to his departure, upon seeing how the children of the village were forced to write their lessons in the soil with sticks, he promised to build them a school.

The book describes how Greg returned to California, broke and living out of his car, to raise the $12,000 required to build the school. From humble beginnings, to patronage by the late multimillionaire scientist Dr Jean Hoerni and the formation of the Central Asia Institute (CAI), Greg has directed the building of 80 schools, women’s community centres and student hostels in North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan. This could only have been achieved with a very loyal team of local contacts that Greg has a natural faculty to draw towards him. The schools are built by the people of the villages with the full support of the village communities.

The emphasis of CAI schools is on the education of girls, an idea captured by the maxim, ‘If you educate a man, you educate an individual; but if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ (Mahatma Gandhi). This lasting and indelible educational structure is at the core of improving healthcare and welfare of villagers, but furthermore, will reduce the number of illiterate and uneducated people who would otherwise provide cannon fodder for radicalism by fundamentalist clerics; a mother is less likely to give her blessing to her son’s jihad, a strong social requirement, if she is educated and literate.

The byline of the book is, ‘One man’s mission to promote peace…one school at a time’. It is a noble cause and one that I will happily support. I highly recommend that everyone read ‘Three cups of tea’. If you enjoy the book, also read some of the CAI publications (Journey of Hope), which provide updates and fantastic photography of the current and ongoing projects.