Metal causes cancer, but iron prevents it. Courtesy of the Daily Mail.

dailymailHere’s a Friday funny for you: my friend put me onto a hilarious website called “Kill or cure“, which classifies inanimate objects on the basis of whether British newspaper the Daily Mail says they cause cancer or cure it.

Metal, according to the Daily Mail, causes cancer, but nobody panic, iron and zinc prevent it.

Nuts prevent cancer, but peanuts cause it.  Cod liver oil can give you cancer, but fish oils will protect you.  Are you still with me?!

Absolutely hilarious.

See also: the Daily Mail Oncological Ontology Project

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So what happened to the AIDs vaccine?

HIVYou might remember all the hullabaloo last month about the HIV vaccine developed by the US military and tested on 16,000 people in Thailand.  Hailed as an “HIV breakthrough” and a “historic milestone“, the initial press release of the study certainly had the media convinced that a prevention for AIDs was just around the corner.

Now the research has been presented in full at the AIDS Vaccine 2009 Conference in Paris and in the New England Journal of Medicine, and reactions are far more circumspect.

Granted, the vaccine in question is the first ever to provide any kind of protection against HIV, but it only prevented HIV-1 infection in 31.2% of participants. 74 of the 8198 volunteer who received the placebo vaccine became infected with HIV-1, but 51 of the 8197 people who were given the vaccine still managed to get infected – a difference of only 23 people.

I’m not really sure what happened with this story.  Did it get press released before publication and before anyone had a good look at all the data?  To be fair the initial news stories were pretty good in their reporting of the research, but why is the story doing the rounds again?

New Scientist is on the ball with this.  In September they published an article “What to make of the HIV vaccine ‘triumph’“, in which they point out that “the victory was won by the slenderest of numerical margins.”

In addition, New Scientist provides some sort of answer to my previous question.  Says the article: “The result was disclosed at the earliest available opportunity at the request of the Thai collaborators, says Merlin Robb, deputy director for clinical research at the MHRP.  “The Thai Ministry of Public Health was very anxious to let the volunteers in Thailand know the result as soon as possible, instead of waiting for a scientific conference,” says Robb. “This reflects our commitment to the volunteers and transparency in all aspects of this trial,” he said.”

So what’s with this jumping of the gun and presenting research before it’s been published in a peer review journal?  But researchers live in a “publish or perish” environment and are in constant fear of being “pipped to the post”.

The BMJ says “We do not want material that is published in the BMJ appearing beforehand, in detail, in the mass media” and “The BMJ does not want to publish material that has already appeared in full elsewhere“. And the New England Journal of Medicine cites their “Ingelfinger rule“, which “requires that author-researchers not release the details of their findings to the mass media before their work undergoes peer review and is published.”

I don’t think this research would have subsequently been published in the NEJM if the authors had in fact broken the embargo, so there must have ben some intense behind the scenes bargaining to get the paper released early – but only a month early.

I’m not really sure what point I’m trying to make here, but I think it’s certainly interesting that this paper made a bug splash a month before the full data was published then did the rounds again.

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Visiting the Natural History Museum Darwin Centre

Today my friends and I went to see the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, and it was AMAZING!

Cocoon 1The aim of this shiny new wing is to show visitors “the hidden world of museum science”.

The Natural History Museum is rightly most famous for it’s natural history collection, which comprises more than 70 million specimens amassed over the past 400 years. However, the museum is also an active research centre that covers biodiversity, disease, climate change and environmental science.

The striking Cocoon building at the Darwin Centre combines these two arms of the museum’s mission, housing over 200 working scientific experts and also a significant proportion of the museum’s specimens.

The specimens are in storerooms on the lower five floors in a controlled environment behind 4cm glass windows.  And the scientists?  They’re also on display behind glass windows, allowing guests to get a glimpse of science in action; for example, the preparation of specimens for cataloging or the extraction of DNA for sequencing.

GScientists as lab ratsiven my geeky tendencies, I particularly enjoyed the Decoding DNA area. This spot explained how and why scientists unravel DNA, and included a funky animation of PCR. One of the things I really liked about the whole Darwin Centre was that it explained the practicalities of what scientists do, and the clear explanation the rather complicated process of DNA sequencing was a great example.

Malaria gameThe Decoding DNA area also had a cool game about sequencing the DNA of various disease carrying mosquitoes.  You first had to catch enough mosquitoes to fill your quota of PCR tubes, then run them on your virtual electrophoresis gel to get a look at the variation among different types of mosquitoes.  Once you knew what the different types were, you were given a list of their characteristics and asked how you think they should be controlled.

We suggested that our drug resistant Anopheles species of mosquito should be controlled with nets rather than drugs, and totally won the game.  Curing malaria isn’t bad for a morning’s work!

The Cocoon has more than 40 high-tech installations and hands-on interactive activities like this.  Some of my other favourites included a video about peer review and publishing research (predictable? me?!) and a collection of videos of scientists on field expeditions.  More great info on the day to day lives of Britain’s scientists.

Nature plus

Dotted around the exhibition are various barcode scanners for the museum’s NaturePlus scheme.  Each visitor is given a card with a unique barcode that they can scan at exhibits they find particularly interesting and save content to view later online.

I imagine this service is really helpful for school children who are working on a project about taxonomy, for example.  The kids can find out the basics about classification of organisms on their trip to the museum, then do further research about Linnaeus and co when they get home.

Overall I think the Darwin Centre is a great resource for teaching the general public, especially kids, about what it means to be a scientist.  Certainly when I was at school we learnt about DNA, photosynthesis, and so on, but were taught little about how this information was acquired bar the stories of big names like Darwin and Mendel.  The great “how to do biology” exhibition in the Darwin Centre would have no doubt filled the gaps in my schoolgirl knowledge and given me a clear idea of what further studies in science might eventually lead to.

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Switching from paper to patient – taking part in a clinical trial

tracera_logoI make a living reading clinical research papers and am familiar with the big picture of clinical trials – papers published, guidelines amended and practice improved.  Grassroots clinical research – the work of doctors, nurses and patients undertaking a trial – has always seemed like a million miles away to me.

However, I’m hoping to get a new perspective on the nuts and bolts of how clinical research is conducted as my Dad is currently taking part in a huge rheumatoid arthritis trial – the TRACE RA trial.  This study is investigating whether heart drugs – statins – reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

People with rheumatoid arthritis are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease than the general population and are thus are more likely to have a fatal heart attack or stroke.  This increased risk is thought to be due to a higher incidence of atherosclerosis in patients with rheumatoid arthritis – the inflammation that attacks the joints in such people is though to also affect the lining of their blood vessels.

Statins reduce “cardiovascular disease events” and mortality in high risk populations, largely through lowering cholesterol but also possibly through reducing inflammation.  We don’t know whether statins are beneficial in rheumatoid arthritis though, as people with this highly inflammatory condition are usually excluded from statin trials.

The TRACE RA trial is a prospective, 5-year, multicentre, randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled study that will assess the hypothesis that a statin is more effective than a placebo in the primary prevention of cardiovascular events in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

Up to 4,000 people over the age of 50 who have had rheumatoid arthritis for at least 10 years are being randomised to receive either the statin atorvastatin or placebo daily. The patients in the trial will be followed up for up to 7 years to see if those on the statin are less likely to have a cardiovascular event than those on the placebo.

My Dad joined the trial quite recently and is currently going through his initial follow-up visits, which take place at 3, 6 and 12 months. At each visit he gives a blood sample and also fills in a questionnaire, which he showed me last time I visited. Dad was a bit concerned about the questionnaire, as he was being asked quite dramatic things like whether he was able to dress himself or cut up his own food. Thankfully his arthritis is well controlled and he doesn’t have any mobility problems, so he can answer “no” to most the questions; I’m guessing other trial participants aren’t so lucky.

The questionnaire he has to fill in is a validated tool for assessing functional disability called the Health Assessment Questionnaire (HAQ).  I’ve come across the questionnaire when reading rheumatology papers – it’s used in patients with a wide variety of rheumatic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, lupus, and ankylosing spondylitis – so I was intrigued to get a proper look at it.

Given how much I go on about clinical research, Dad was keen to be involved in a trial himself and hopefully contribute a small part to improving treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.  There’s also a history of heart disease in my family, so (potentially) receiving a statin when he otherwise wouldn’t be on the list to do so could prove doubly beneficial for Dad.

I’m looking forward to following my Dad’s progress in the trial and reading the first published paper.  The design of the trial seems pretty solid so any positive findings could have considerable implications for how patients with rheumatoid arthritis are treated.  And my Dad – subject number whatever out of n=4000 or so – is playing his own little part.

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Wellcome Image Awards: shedding light on the microscopic world

This week medical charity the Wellcome Trust presented their annual image awards, which highlight the best new pictures acquired in the past 18 months by their free picture library.

The prizes are awarded to “the creators of the most informative, striking and technically excellent images” on the basis of “the ability of the picture to communicate the wonder and fascination of science.”

Dr Alice M Roberts, who presented the awards, emphasised not only the utility of images in science, but also their value as beautiful work of art.  “Imaging and imagery can help scientists in many ways: to understand structures that are too small to be seen by the naked eye, or perhaps to elucidate the relationship between structure and function,” she said. “But as well as deepening understanding, the art of science can also be – in its own right – beautiful and awe-inspiring.”

My favourite images are those created using microscope techniques like electron microscopy and multiphoton microscopy, which provide an extraordinary insight into the detail of human anatomy.

This first picture is of villi in the small intestine – finger-like structures that absorb nutrients from the food passing through the gut.  Paul Appleton, who produced this image using fluorescent imaging techniques, hopes that it might help researchers identify cancerous change in colon tissue, pointing out that “Scientists have to characterise normal tissue before they can look for changes in abnormal tissue.”

SI villi

Another of my favourites is this vivid picture of capillaries from a structure in the eye known as the ciliary body, which sits either side of the lens.  Capillaries measure 5-10 micrometres in diameter and are only one cell thick, so getting such a clear and informative image of these tiny vessels is quite an achievement.  The bright red colour is the result of a dye – likely to be carmine dye – that was injected into the artery that supplied the capillaries.


Number three is this picture of compact bone – the dense stuff that surrounds the bone marrow.  The structures that look like rings in a tree stump are called osteons, in which lamellae of bone tissue form around canals that house the blood and nerve vessels supplying the bone.  The black specks show osteocytes, the living cells that produce bone tissue.  The cells are lost during processing, however, leaving the holes within the bone that they once occupied.  Unlike the previous images, no false colour was added to this picture.  Your intestines aren’t blue and red like the image of villi above, but your bone definitely looks like this.

compact bone

Last is this image of in vitro fertilization.  The “blazing sun” object is the egg, the “rays” produced by cumulus cells that protect the egg.  This image shows the moment of conception, with a sperm wiggling its way in on one side.


These images and more are available to view on the Wellcome Trust Image Awards website.  They’re also on display until Spring 2010 in a free exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

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Sacre bleu! French diet doesn’t meet nutrient recommendations

Typical French dishFrench food is famous around the world.  From the haute cuisine espoused by cordon bleu and the Michelin Guide to weird and wonderful dishes like frogs legs, the French are passionate about cooking and what they eat.

However, a study published recently in the Journal of Nutrition has found that the diet consumed by the majority of French adults doesn’t meet nutrition recommendations.  Only 22% of adults could meet dietary requirements by fine tuning what they already ate, whereas the remaining 78% of French adults would need to expand their diet.

The authors of this study used modelling techniques to create diet plans based on an individual’s “habitual food repertoire” – i.e. the kinds of foods they regularly consumed.  The idea of this approach was to calculate a diet plan that met nutritional recommendations without deviating much from the foods the individual already liked to eat.

More than a thousand French adults who were participating in the French national food consumption study provided seven day food diaries. The authors then tried to design for each individual a diet plan that met 30 different food recommendations by using the foods in their weekly food repertoire.  The designed diets varied according to the individual’s gender, age and observed nutrient intake levels.

The authors found that they could only put together diets that met all 30 recommendations for 22% of adults – i.e. only a fifth of the sample had diets that could be tweaked to be nutritionally sound on the basis of how foods were combined or how big portion sizes were.  These individuals consumed more energy and more fruit and vegetables than those whose food repertoire couldn’t be juggled to meet requirements.

On the other hand, it was mathematically impossible to design a nutritionally adequate diet for the remaining 78% without extending the range of foods they ate.  The main problem among participants with unsatisfactory diets was that their favourite foods didn’t contain enough vitamin D, although their diet plans also couldn’t be manipulated to within maximum sodium levels or minimum magnesium recommendations.

Unsurprisingly, feasible diets could be put together for every participant when the food options were not limited to the individual’s food repertoire.

This study suggests not only that the diets of most French adults aren’t anywhere near meeting nutrition requirements, but also that considerable changes will need to be made to the foods eaten in order to meet a healthy diet.  Maybe French food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all…

Maillot M et al. (2009) To Meet Nutrient Recommendations, Most French Adults Need to Expand Their Habitual Food Repertoire. Journal of Nutrition 139 (9): 1721-1727. DOI: 10.3945/jn.109.107318

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