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

Nanomedicine…

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…”

The great divide…

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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…”

Superorganisms…

[ratings]

NO, don’t get excited, I said super organisms. Yesterday’s The Scientist led with an article on Super organisms, which reminds me of my invertebrate neural and endocrinology lectures of years past. I used to be fascinated by the idea of super organisms, which is simply an organism of many organisms.

Being a prokaryotic biologist, I tend to think of things at the scale of planktonic (free-living) single cells, and occasionally we enjoy the concept of cooperative living in biofilms or other more complex structured consortia like stromatolites. Ultimately, evolution has resulted in multicellular organisms, some of which were further refined into organisms consisting of many different tissues with disparate characteristics; most people are not unfamiliar with this.

An interesting idea in biology is the idea of a super organism, where parallels can be drawn between the essential components of a complex higher organism, such as a mammal, and individual organisms within the super organism:

It is a rather contentious idea as it runs into the semanto-scientific diction of what exactly constitutes an organism. Are we limited by our usual scale-interpretation as Humans, where an abstract idea of a super organism clashes with our own biological recognition of what constitutes an organism? The big question is of course, how can such a super organism evolve? This is one of those great challenges that evolutionary biologists love.

At what scale does natural selection, the active force of evolution, have its effect? Does it act at the level of the individual? Yes, probably; I am still with Dawkins on the idea of selection acting at the level of the gene. However, for natural selection to have an effect, it depends on individual differences within a population, and crucially, on the ability of the “fittest” individual to survive and reproduce. However, in Ant colonies the Ants are sterile drones; the reproductive entity of a such a super organism is the queen of an Ant colony.

Thus we have a situation where “unfit” worker Ants can result in the collapse of a colony, therefore selection feeds back to the Queen where reproductive success is dependant upon producing workers that are capable of fulfilling their roles in the provision of food, looking after eggs, defending the colony and building infrastructure; thus a very indirect form of selection. So is the superorganism being selected or not?

Good question,  it’ll be fun finding out.

Viruses in the genes

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THERE was a recent article in NewScientist suggesting that viruses are the unsung heroes of evolution. Whilst that is somewhat of a sensationalist position, there is a great degree of truth in it. Many anti-evolutionists seem convinced that it is mathematically impossible that genetic variation and mutation can be a sufficient substrate upon which natural selection can act.

What they forget is that whilst a mathematical proof is always the truth, it is a truth that is dependent upon whether the mathematical model accurately reflects the physical problem. Mathematics is limited to the validity of the assumptions that underpin the statement of the problem, thus in the fixing of certain variables it’s important to distinguish between getting the maths right and getting the problem right.

The variation seen in a species, upon which natural selection can act given circumstances that favour one variation over another, is encoded by alleles; this is the name given to different “versions” of the same gene, thus for eye colour, different alleles may be: brown, blue, green etc. Some alleles are dominant, some are recessive; the dominant ones win and get used, the recessive ones lose  and don’t get used. The dominant and recessive alleles are both part of your genetic make up, and this is called your genotype. The dominant alleles result in a physical attributes in the organism, such as brown eyes, and these physical attributes are known as the phenotype.

It is true to say that whilst all phenotype is derived from the genotype, not all genotype results in phenotype. Dominant traits, because they are aspects of the genotype that are reflected in the phenotype, are traits that can be acted upon by natural selection; however recessive traits are effectively hidden from natural selection unless the DNA that codes for the recessive alleles is physically linked to a piece of DNA that results in some other dominant trait that can be selected for or against. This recessivity maintains a store of genetic diversity.
Continue reading “Viruses in the genes”

Communal peeing

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I happened upon a paper that made me smile this morning.

Apparently there are these Ants, Cataulacus muticus, which happen to be obligate bamboo-nesting Ants. They live inside giant bamboo, which as any survival expert knows is prone to a bit of flooding in the hollow internodes. This of course riles the Ants a little, so their response is apparently two-fold. During the heavy rains, the workers form a living umbrella over their nest entrance using their packed heads.

Of course, rainwater may still seep in. So not being ones to shirk responsibility, the Ants respond by drinking the water, exiting the nest and excreting the water droplets down the outer stem surface – basically, they hang their arses out of the window. This, in the wit of the authors, has been termed communal, or cooperative, “peeing”. Fantastic.

For those with access: Maschwitz & Moog (2000) Communal Peeing: a new mode of flood control in ants. Naturwissenschaften 87: 563-565.

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Virophage

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IN today’s issue of Nature is an account of a virus that infects a virus, a virophage. We are all familiar with the ubiquitous plant and animal viruses. Many of us are familiar with the bacteriophage, viruses that specifically attack bacterial cells and are the most abundant organism on the planet; somewhere around 10 million virus particles in a drop of sea water.

Now we hear of a small virus, called Sputnik, which infects an enormous virus, called Mamavirus. This is a larger member of a class of giant viruses, originally discovered in 2003 in a cooling tower in Bradford. The original Bradford virus of that 2003 discovery, Mimivirus, was initially mistaken for a small bacterial cell such is its size. Viruses are parasites, incapable of replicating themselves without a host cell; a virus infects and subsequently usurps the cellular machinery of the host cell to make a virus factory, spewing out replica virus particles. The small Sputnik “virophage” is able to parasitise the large virus’s factory for its own ends.

Having realised that such parasitism exists, and adjusted their views to the sizes of particles involved, researchers believe that this phenomenon may be common in nature, and particularly important in oceanic plankton blooms; the knock on effects of which have implications in ocean nutrient cycles and climate, plankton being one of the major carbon sinks on the planet.

It is a fantastically interesting discovery by Didier Raoult and colleagues, from the University of the Mediterranean, and certainly raises some questions as to the nature of whether viruses are alive or not. If the large Mimivirus is capable of being mistaken for a bacterial cell, and being parasitised by a smaller virus, at what point to we conclude that viruses are a distinct living entities, all be it obligatorily parasitic ones?