A cure in the toxin…

Coley [from Starnes, 1992, Nature 357: 11-12]THE year is 1892, and in a small ward of the Memorial Hospital in New York City, a male patient lies dying. He has a large sarcoma (a type of cancerous tumour) that originated on his right arm, and been feverish for 12 hours. His fever isn’t due to the cancer though – it’s a result of an infection his physician gave him. The physician’s name is William B. Coley, and he recently administered an injection of ‘Coley’s toxins’, a potent mix of bacterial toxins that may cure the man of his cancer, but equally may also kill him.

William Coley had for some time observed that his patients experienced a regression in their cancer as a result of infection with a bacterial pathogen. Indeed, Coley had read publications that supported this observation, most notably with sarcoma patients suffering from erysipelas infection – an acute skin infection caused by Streptococcus bacteria. Based on these observations Coley engaged in a system of treatment that would have modern day ethics committees in apoplexy – he set about deliberately inducing erysipelas in his cancer patients.

There was no guarantee that erysipelas would take hold, or that it wouldn’t actually kill the patient. However, by all accounts Coley achieved some definitive results that led to him to further develop his treatment. He set upon the idea of killing the Streptococcus by heat-treatment, and collecting the bacterial extract to inject into the patient – an approach akin to early forms of vaccination – however, the results weren’t so impressive. It wasn’t until he combined the extract of his heat-killed Streptococcus with extract of another heat-killed bacteria, Serratia marcescans (another common cause of wound infections) that he noted reproducible clinical successes. This toxic brew of bacteria extracts was called ‘Coley’s toxins’.

Continue reading “A cure in the toxin…”

Mimicry: survival or flattery?…

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIF you hadn’t guessed already, I’m busy trying to write a paper at the moment. This being the case, I have managed to successfully postpone this onerous task by spending time reading other people’s papers. I’m now going to spend a little more time explaining one of them you, my lovely readers.

Many years ago, when I was a grad student, I found myself at an otherwise rather dull conference on nucleic acid research; but fortunately it was not a complete wash-out, a chance conversation with a grad student who happened to be presenting a poster on the adjacent board to mine introduced me to the world of molecular mimicry.

Hoverfly (via David Packman, hampshirecam.co.uk)So what is mimicry and why is it important in the natural world? Mimicry is the imitation of one species by another, with the most well known purpose being to avoid being eaten. Most people will have encountered hoverflies, and may in the first instance have mistaken them for a wasp or a bee; from an evolutionary perspective, predators such as birds have also learnt to associate these warning (aposematic) colours with a stinging or poisonous prey, and so the Hoverfly gets to fly another day.

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Anatomy of (preparing to write) a scientific paper…

IT IS probable that most readers won’t know how much effort it takes to get the results of a scientific investigation in to press. After months and months of work, copious experiments, repetitions, frustrations, banging head against the wall, we enter the next phase – the paper. The effort of will, the to-ing and fro-ing from author to author, author to editor, author to reviewer, author to author, author to reviewer, through revisions and heartache, all so that 99.9% of the working population will never read it, never even know that it exists.

07.00 – Eager with anticipation I hit the computer. I then hit it again, and this time it starts. I’m at work and I’m using one of the institute’s computers. Last night I painstakingly arranged the four lab books I think I need, together with copious scraps of paper bearing notes and ideas for sentences, comments, discussion points. I’m ready to go.

All. I. Need. to. do. is. write. this. paper.

07.05 – [Waiting for computer] Cup of tea.

07.20 – Computer has finished loading. Quickly check emails.

13.00 – Lunchtime and all I’ve got to show for it is five open browser windows, each containing 12 tabs of web pages; an email-driven surf safari gone wrong, and haven’t written a word. Ok, quick lunch and then get down to it.

14.03 – Right: ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of incremental recognition layered specificity in the assembly of…

[Knocking at door] Lab mate: ‘Can you remind me how to use the Fluorescence spectrometer….?’

16.20 – ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of incremental recognition layered specificity in the for assembly of…

[Knocking at door] Lab mate: “Fancy a coffee?”

16.45‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…

[Prof. walks in and sits down] Prof.: “The group in Bristol want the details of that construct we sent them, they’ve lost it, and they also want the other construct from last year, whatever it’s called, I mentioned it to them and they like the idea. I’m off shortly so could you get them away today?”

[Frantic searching through a year’s worth of meetings notes to identify what Prof means by ‘other construct’, then search archive freezer – once the lab manager has been found and the archive freezer key located. Realise that the sample was from July last year when I went on holiday, thus is poorly labelled as I was too excited to get out of the lab. Thirty minutes of cross-checking and I have the sample. Run to get items into last mail collection across campus in the mail centre.]

18.00 – ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity incremental recognition in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…

[Decide to try working on a figure instead]

20.00 – Figure sorted. ‘Based on these observations we propose a model of layered specificity incremental recognition in the assembly of nucleosomal control complexes…


22.00 ‘Based on these observations we suggest that the nucleosome assembles stochastically.

[Save. Shut down computer. Walk home]

22.30 – Realise that your plan to continue writing was foiled by forgetting the crucial lab note book. It’s either another figure, or bed. Decide on bed, but worth just checking emails/news/blogs briefly on laptop.

02.30Drearily close laptop. Collapse in to bed.

[Start the whole sorry affair again tomorrow].

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My take on Science Online London 2009…


Faraday lecture theatreI HAD good reasons for attending Science Online London 2009, not least of which was to meet – in person – some of the people whose blogs I’ve been reading for some time; and furthermore, how could I turn down an opportunity to spend a day at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. It is always interesting to discover the many cross-overs I shared with other delegates, shared experiences, desires and goals; in one case I found that I’d been working quite literally on top of a fellow blogger (Paolo!) at the same university for five years without once bumping in to him!

However, I am also a professional scientist, so I had a vested interest in some of the more technical discussions in the meeting; I am also passionate about science communication, thus with a varied programme covering the new media applications for science communication, it was bound to be good.

[More below the fold]

Continue reading “My take on Science Online London 2009…”

In London…

I will get down to the task of giving my informed opinion on this weekend’s Science Online London 2009, though it has to be said I’m pretty sure I missed 30% of it; it wasn’t until mid-afternoon on Saturday that I actually capitulated and became a twitterer. I joined the live-feed, jumping in at the deep end and being swept away in a wave of information, though not the Google wave, which came later. With nary a grasp of the twitter culture, nomenclature nor software I started monitoring the virtual debate whilst also taking notes on a lecture by Dave Munger (aka 50% of Cognitive Daily) being given through the virtual venue of Second Life.

So while I get to grips with twitter, read through the notes of the conference (courtesy of The Mind Wobbles – a piece of prodigiously talented live-blogging), and read the #solo09 twitter-feed, I’ll leave you with some evidence of a different kind –

The one where Jim (finally) also becomes ‘a tourist’.

South Kensington Subway Buckingham Palace The Treasury

Bali bomb memorial The cenotaph Parade ground of the Guard House

The Thames and Houses of Parliament IMG_4467_950 The London Eye

Flat White, Berwick St, Soho Princi, Waldour St, Soho Gorgeous Princi food - yes, that is a water fountain and infinity pool behind

The Royal Institution of Great Britain The Natural History Museum The Natural History Museum (Darwin now in his rightful place at the top of the stairs)

The Minerals and Vault Prince Albert's instument exhibit, Museum of Science & Industry Deck chairs on the Serpentine, Hyde Park