Science Online 2010 (and some science)

This Friday I will be getting up horrendously early in the morning to catch a train to London. Here I’ll be meeting the many wonderful and varied people who are attending Science Online London 2010, this time at the British Museum Library. I went along to last year’s event in the Royal Institution, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave me an opportunity to put a face (and an accent) to most of the bloggers I’d been reading for some time, and meet a huge number of new faces. Also like last year I be at the wonderfully informal FringeFrivolous rooftop debate.

For my own part, I have always been enthusiastic about communicating science. As to whether I succeed at this (or not) in my writing I have absolutely no idea, but then again, as I am not a professional science communicator, it never quite seemed to matter. However, I do love to talk about science more. On the conference circuit I fair pretty well in giving talks, but outside of academia I have bent the ear of many a friend, and enjoyed the rare opportunity to hold the rapt attention of roomfuls of school children, or humanist societies. These make me feel great!

However, given the thematic nature of this blog and my mission being to keep the issue of bugs and drugs in the public domain, it’s time for me to put a more concerted effort into up-skilling on communicating ‘as a scientist, to the public’ (whether I get paid for it or not). Of course, we’re fortunate to have the likes of Maryn McKenna (the journalist and blogger behind ‘Superbug’, the book and blog) who hits the subject with her inimitable journalistic verve, but I can’t say I’ve encountered many scientists in the field giving their perspective.

I began this blog off the back of the NDM-1 story because whilst representative of an ongoing serious issue of multidrug resistant bacteria, it comes at a crucial time in the budgetary planning of future science funding. The recent media furore focussed on the lack of antibiotics (in between over-hyped commentary on cheap-ops in India), but failed to mention any of the reasons why most big industry doesn’t want to touch antibiotics with a barge pole (economic in-viability), or any of the academic involvement in resolving this problem (needless to say that it is the efforts of academic labs that we even know we have a problem!)

So what of it? Between 1995 – 2001, the team at one of the remaining biggest players, GlaxoSmithKline, spent $14m for each drug ‘lead’ identified over a period of 7 years (they identified 5 ‘leads’ in that time); remembering of course that a ‘lead’ may well never make it through clinical trials. One of the potential quick-fix options was screening of the pharmacopoeia, the pharmaceutical back-catalogue of drugs developed for everything from bone-loss to cardiac arrhythmia, for new leads. Companies have spent millions assaying such compounds, and derivatives thereof, to see if they can also hit a bacterial target. However, they haven’t yielded the kind of hits that were hoped. One of the reasons cited for this is that whilst the majority of therapeutic drugs obey Lipinski’s ‘rule of five’ (a set of molecular properties that define a good therapeutic drug), antibiotics don’t follow these rules.

LipanskiImage from Payne et al. (2007) Drugs for bad bugs: confronting the challenges of antibacterial discovery. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 6: 29-40 [ link to pdf ]

Thus what are needed are truly novel chemicals; bat-shit crazy, funky, out of the box new chemicals developed by willing, well-founded and eager chemists…..but where are the chemists? Hell, where are the chemistry departments?

You might wonder that such problems are incumbent in all drug discovery, but then most ‘lifestyle’ drugs, the preferred pot of gold for big industry, have a relatively long shelf life. Not so antibiotics: most infections don’t last long, thus people don’t need many packets; physicians are told (correctly) to reserve their use only for bacterial infections (not colds/flu); moves are afoot to ban/scale back agricultural use = not much return for their investment. Then, just when the chips are down, resistance to your new drug is observed in the clinic and the death knell of the drug’s usable life is sounded.

Physicians and industry also want to treat a ‘disease’, not a multiplicity of different infections; but how do you treat a disease like pneumonia with a single antibiotic? Pneumonia can be caused by any of eight completely different bacteria (or multiples thereof), some species of which have as much in common with each other as a human does with a paramecium [ pdf ]. There is a fundamental disconnect between the popular models of drug development and the issues at hand with antibiotic development.

Of course, if industry sees no economic viability in antibiotic drug development, we need to sweeten the deal; one way to do this is offer public money. I hear you gasp, but think about it, this is a global issue and treatment programmes for HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria are the great success stories of what happens when public support, political clout, industrial partnership and a huge pot of cash collide. Of course, in these days of pharma-bad / dolphins-good, no-one is going to throw any public money at industry. One of the best accommodations is for partnerships between industry and academia. These are already a mainstay in microbiology (because if we relied on research council money we certainly wouldn’t still be here!), but it actually relies on the academic partner still being here.

Industrial partners can out-source a great deal of the legwork to academic partners for relatively low cost, increasing the network of players scanning for new drugs, informing new directions and finding. However, I can already run off a list of ten names of highly trained researchers in this field who have left the field over the past 8 years. At this time we’re facing another budgetary crisis in science funding and we must, at all costs, prevent a further loss of both industrial and academic research capacity involved in antibiotic research.

The public needs to be aware of the strong part academic research will have to play in developing new courses of action in the advent of new ‘superbugs’. For all the hope I have that there are academic solutions to better strategies of antibiotic use, anticipating and preventing resistance, better surveillance, and identifying new drug targets in bacteria (or better approaches to known targets), these are all rather like architect’s plans when what we need right now are some bricks in the oven.

Look forward to seeing everyone at Science Online 2010.

[This post was restored from a WayBackWhen archive. It was originally posted to a blog called ‘The Gene Gym” that began life on the Nature Network in 2010, and then moved to Spekrum’s SciLogs platform.]


Apologies for my absenteeism this week, I have been busy researching some family history for an upcoming post, which I hope to finish soon. If you’re looking for some light Sunday reading however, please consider a selection of my other posts:

Fallacies of logic – how logic is abused to achieve nefarious and intellectually dishonest ends.

Bio-suit – how human do you think you are? An essay about the human microbiome, the zoo of organisms that live on us, and in us – without which we wouldn’t be here.

The strength of great apes – describing the folly of engaging in an arm-wrestle with a Chimpanzee in the pub.

A cure in the toxin – describes the early use of bacterial infection to treat some forms of cancer.

…and finally, a book recommendation, ‘Three cups of tea‘.

Artistic breaks…

Final_smallI’VE had a long weekend away, re-kindling my artistic proclivities by staying in a yurt on the edge of a moor in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire; also the source of the blue stone used to build Stonehenge. It is an ancient landscape of winding roads, erratic stones strewn across the landscape, burial barrows, stone circles and various other random dolmens. Overwhelmingly Pembrokeshire is defined by its patchwork of green fields that hug the coastline right up to the lips of the characteristic Pembrokeshire cliffs.

On the way down to Pembrokeshire was Aberystwyth, home to the sister of my alma mater university, and also home to a fine promenade (see pictures below), great cafes, and delicatessens. Also not far from Aber is Machynlleth and the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). When I first visited the CAT 12 years ago, on a university field trip, green technologies were bulky, poorly commercialised and required a significant commitment to implement. However, times have changed, and it’s never been easier, or cheaper, to make the change to green energy, water and waste recycling, and sustainable lifestyles. The CAT is looking a little dated in some areas (most notably the rickety old water-powered funicular, which isn’t exactly a technology that should be rickety), but in other areas it has continued to grow, develop and implement newer green technologies.

One thought-provoking CAT display is a pictoral time-lapse of landscape (mis-)development between 1953 and 1975, with obvious connotations of the negative impact of urban development. I photographed them and reassembled them here, which is the image on the left of this post.

Also at the CAT I discovered the Small House Society, something I’m sure has been rather more successfully promoted in the USA, but alas has received little notice over here. Spending time in a yurt, with a small adjoining shed containing a mini kitchen and shower, a hay bail to piss on and another small shed containing a sawdust toilet pit, it makes you wonder just how much space we really need. I guess the point it, if you live in a beautiful place, then sacrificing your living space isn’t too much of a chore; if you’re trying to ‘get back to the garden’ in a Joni Mitchell sense, then surely it’s better to have more garden than house? It’d be nice to see more communities of small (<300 sq yd) houses, rather than sprawling urban ribbon development.

Speaking of the yurt, on the same grounds was a pottery studio where I learnt to ‘throw a pot’, which is apparently pottery parlance for the making of a pot using a wheel. I have subsequently returned home with several new dishes, some random small pots, a coffee mug, a milk jug and a strong desire to add ‘Potter’ to my long list of alternative creative career options.

Four days isn’t really a lot of time to see everything, and rather than bore readers with a long account of a destination that you are better off visiting, rather than reading about, here are a few taster photos:

Traditional barn roof, mid-Wales Polytunnel at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Powys Potting table, CAT, Machynlleth, Powys

Garden waste stove put to multiple uses, CAT, Machynlleth, Powys Aberystwyth promenade, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion. Aberystwyth pier

Aberystwyth beach jetty Book shop next to the Old Merchant House, Tenby, Pembrokeshire Brooding sky above an otherwise sunny Tenby beach

Lifeguard flag, Tenby beach One of my first thrown dishes Pentre Ifan burial chamber, erected 3,500 BCE!

I will add to these as and when I make headway through the seveal hundred captures I made!

Zen t-shirt folding…

If there’s two things that people should know about me, its that I fold shirts and tie shoelaces a bit differently.

Periodically I feel compelled to post this video on how to fold t-shirts. I have been doing so for three-years now, on various blogs. So for those of you who don’t fold your t-shirts correctly, here is how it’s done.

As for tying shoelaces, well:

With a more detailed description of how to do so.

More science later folks.

Writing time…

So the university has afforded me some free time for the next five days, which gives me the perfect opportunity to get caught up on some of the science blogging I’ve been planning. In the next few days I will be posting some pictures and video that fall into the broad category, ‘Life in the lab’. In this I will be discussing topics, in no particular order, such as:

‘I’m just running a gel…’, – what does this line, often used by lab scientists, actually mean?

‘Using biology as a scaffold for building nano-electronic circuits…’ – this is some of the research I am involved in.

‘Toy’s for science boys (and girls)…’ – Yes, there are geeky tool kits (I call them toys) that we use in molecular biology. Most people won’t know the point of using them, let alone that they exist; I’ll attempt to explain why they’re cool.

Finally, I will be doing a research blog on ‘Targeted antibiotics…’ – new approaches to make antibiotics more useful, and that take out the ‘bad’ bugs, but leave the ‘good’.

Amusing encounter…

When exiting a pub in Keswick (Lake District) at the weekend, I walked headlong into a blind man and his Alsatian guide dog who were heading into the pub. He laughed and apologised, then told me, “Sorry, I’m following the dog; he never misses a pub!”


Welcome to Mental Indigestion….

Not sure how you’ve arrived here? I set up a DNS forward from my old ‘time to waste’ blog. You will find all the content from that blog in this blog. In fact, there is very little difference, other than that the name and domain of my blog now match.

I have every intention of up-scaling my coverage of science, which will be in bite-sized pieces to help prevent mental indigestion. So if anyone is suffering with brain biliousness and needs an intellectual Alka-Seltzer, then you’ve come to the right place.


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.