Science & Health

Evidence: What Evidence?

You probably are aware of ‘Likes’  on places such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These ‘Likes’ are put into an algorithm and then advertisements come up due to what you apparently ‘Like’.  I love to confuse and add in random ‘Likes’, bell-ringing, star-gazing, flower arranging, shoe repairing etc. My favourite response was from a computer scientist on an Open University programme about computers and statistics. He said that when he bought a book online a recommendation would come up telling him: ‘People like you like the following books…..’ To which he said to camera, ‘I don’t like people like me’!

My mother used to tell me that one day they will tell you that Salmonella is good for you. They will produce statistics to prove it. They will say that this is scientific proof. But statistics are not scientific proof. Statistics are mathematical proofs.

Statistics measure the correlation between two events. How likely they are to occur together. Statistics tries to remove confounding variables; things that also happen at the same time, but are not really correlated. But they do not prove cause and effect.

Science is interested in cause and effect. It is not empirical, another mistake made by non-scientists. Empiricism does not measure cause and effect.

Science measures the link between cause and effect. It does this by experiment. That is why most other disciplines are not scientific. They call themselves scientific (Social Sciences, rather than Sociology, for example) but they cannot do the experiment to test the theory. They can only do the stats.

Example A: If you want to prove that ‘watching violent television makes children violent’, you would need to

  • take two groups of children 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and
  • put those two groups of children in exactly the same environments (food, clothes, rooms, etc) and
  • let one group watch violent TV programmes and
  • not let other group watch violent TV programmes
  • for a number of days/weeks and
  • see if there is a difference in behaviour afterwards.

This experiment would never be allowed, it is unethical; so you cannot do the experiment to prove the link. You can do the stats on children that watch violent TV, but you cannot be sure other things have not had the effect.

Example B: If you want to say that the ‘killing of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo started the First World War‘ you would have to

  1. travel back in time to Sarajevo 1914 and
  2. ‘un-shoot’ Archduke Ferdinand and
  3. see if the First World War still happened.

Good luck getting the grant for that research!

A number of academic disciplines that say they are using scientific methodology are not doing so and a number that say they are using statistics are still not doing scientific methodology.

The example I give my students are two excellent papers by very good teams.

  • one paper says that feeding babies on breast milk makes them more intelligent and
  • one paper says that feeding babies on breast milk doesn’t make them more intelligent.

How do they  find opposite results? By statistical analysis. There is no experimental proof to either claim. There are a lot of confounding variables which get in the way of the correlation between milk and intelligence.

All the scientific evidence points to Salmonella not being good for you, so whatever the stats say, please don’t try the Salmonella.


Science & Health Values and Beliefs

Mortality OR Cancer- the Boolean Algorithm of Life!

Not the easiest title to  very contentious issues- preventing ageing, becoming immortal, regenerating ourselves and looking like 28 forever.

Image result for ageing

Cells in the human body come in a variety of types, there are about 206, such as skin cells, kidney cells, liver cells, bone cells and within these categories (skin, kidney, liver, bone) there are subgroups of cells.

For instance, in skin there are epithelial such as keratinocytes, melanocytes and connective cells such as fibroblasts. About 206 types of cells. Any of which can become aberrant and tumorous. That is part of the reason we do not have a one fix for cancer, which cell is cancerous has to be found, nor one check for cancer as each type of cancer appears in a different part of the body.

We cannot detect a cancer until there are about 1 gram of cells, which constitutes about 109 cells, which is a 1 with 9 zeros after it- a billion cells. There are 206 types of cells, but there are many cells of each of these types. We humans are composed of about 1013 cells, a one with 13 zeros, 10 trillion cells. So finding the correct cancer and detecting it early is not easy. If it was, we would have cured it ages ago.

However, what most people do not know is that cancers are probably changes in stem cells. There are about 206 types of cells in the body. These tend to be functional cells, the cells that do something, move oxygen, filter, waste, pump blood, digest food. While they do the stuff of life, the activities that keep us in what is called homeostasis, they get worn out by their work (as do we!) and can go through one of two possibilities, regeneration or death. On the whole they die. They are replaced by their other cells. These cells develop into the type of cell they are replacing, do their job, get worn out and die. All over the body this is happening. While you are reading this about 40 million cells in your body have died (about 60 billion cells die per day).  About 2,800,000 red blood cells die per second! They have to be replaced.

Stem cells are the cells that replace the worn out functional end cells, or terminal cells. Stem cells are the feeder cells. They don’t do the functions, the activities of the body. What they do is produce under-developed cells into the areas that need replacing. Blood stem cells (found in bone marrow) feed the appropriate number of cells into the various blood cell types. The cells develop through a number of cell divisions to become all the cell types of blood, red blood cells (erythrocytes), granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils, basophils), monocytes (macrophages), leukocytes (T cells and B cells) and platelets (thrombocytes). And that is just the cells of the blood. There are stem cells whose daughter cells make all the types of cells of the liver. There are stem cells whose daughters make most of the skin cells.

Stem cells live their lives as producers of cells that go on to produce more cells that actually do things. Stem cells are the producers of potential activities, but do nothing apart from produce cells that go on to realise their potential. Stem cells tend to have names such as Somatic Multipotent Cells or Embryonic Pluripotent Cells. These names describe the potential of the cells they give birth to.

Multipotent are stem cells such as the blood stem cells described above. They can give birth to daughter cells that can become different types of blood cells, but they don’t become muscle or skin or liver cells.

Pluripotent stem cells have more potential. The daughter cells can become all the types of cells of the body, all 206 types. But pluripotent cells are more primitive. They exist only in the first few days of life (days 5-14 post conception, post fertilisation). Very soon, the embryo pluripotent stem cells become more restricted. They become multipotent. They make daughters in one compartment of the body, the skin, the bone, the muscle, the liver.

This is the basis of life. Lots of potential and lots of realisation. Some cells have the potential, but do nothing much apart from give birth to cell that will do lots. Some cells do lots, but die.

Cancer is when the terminal cells, the functional cells, refuse to die and start to have the characteristics of earlier, less developed cells; lots of potential but no actualisation. In fact, we grade cancers by how ‘underdeveloped’ the cells are, how backwards they have gone in what they do. We call the development of mature features, the development of being functional ‘differentiation’. Stem cells and cancer cells are less differentiated, have become less different, undifferentiated.

We can live with potential, what we could have been, or we can live with realising our potential!

But being alive is being mortal.

‘And the clock waits so patiently on your song’.Image result for david bowie rock and roll suicide



At the moment there are some duff anti-ageing ‘research’. Some of it is being done by people who do not have much if any biology background (they are hiding that). They are the equivalent of an evangelical preacher who acts live The Prophet. There are a lot of them around talking nonsense, but saying what people want to hear. They have some rich backers. Because you have made a fortune in oil or tyre manufacture does not make you a genius.

We have a programme, ‘Dragon’s Den’ where people that have made money take a bet on other people’s money making ideas. It is a bet. They talk as if the people asking for cash input are stupid, but given that many of the panellists (the Dragons) have backed losers in their time, the crystal ball of predictions is as accurate for them as for the rest of us. Given that we have finally realised that economists are on the same level as crystal ball gazers, we might realise that rich people are not necessarily the font of all knowledge.  As they have made money they wish to be immortal. Immortality, in humans, is a sign of primitiveness;  lots of potential, but no differentiation, no actualisation.

Realise your potential and die. Please. Future generations do not want these people to live forever. They don’t want any of us around forever. They want vital alive people. People born with potential and realising it. Not people scared to move just in case they are run over by a truck or smile just in case they get a wrinkle.

Our job on this planet is to realise our own potential, the amazing things we can do. We can all do crap primitive stuff like killing people and destroying things. That is what children do. Destruction. Realising your potential is becoming adult, creative, growing up, caring. So please realise your potentials and help all people to realise theirs.

And then leave.




Science & Health

I want solar and other climate change issues!



You are reading a weblog right now, so a mobile phone is likely to be close to hand. That phone is probably the size of a small envelope. That phone makes calls, telephone calls, quite an old fashioned idea. It also sends text messages, receives and sends email; emails that you have written on it. It connects you to the internet. It can store music and play it to you. It can play films. It can take photographs and store them. It has a diary, a calculator, an alarm, a clock, a date time, ways of notifying you and countless silly apps. It also contains a battery that lasts about 2 days or more on a 2 hour charge.

I want solar. I want solar the size of your mobile phone. I want a panel that size that captures photons of light for electricity. I want a battery the size of your phone that stores about 24 hours worth of domestic electricity (I could buy two if they are small enough and cheap enough!). That is all I need it to do. Not phone anyone. Not take their picture. Not play a game or video. Just capture photons of light and make electricity. Simples!

Can someone fix that for me/us please?

Science & Health

Body-Snatchers: Did the Science and Ethics get a Bypass?

       Your choice. sir?                         frankenstein

Wow-I  just heard, on Radio 4 BBC, a whole programme featuring this Canavero person and his ideas for  head transplants. It is also all over the newspapers.

They keep talking about the person with a terrible disease of the body wanting their head transplanted to a healthy body.


Come on guys. Are you suggesting we kill healthy people so that somebody can have their head transplanted onto them?
I know- let’s go abroad and get their bodies!
From some poor family or some criminal or some hitch-hiker!
There is a dreadful exhibition that has toured the world where somebody displays plasticated humans.  Real humans. They call it an anatomy exhibition. It is completely disgraceful.
What it really is are Chinese prisoners that have been sentenced to death. If they agree to sell their bodies to the curator of the show (from, of course, a Western country) they will be shot by a bullet. If not, they have a slower painful death. Yippee. People murdered for your entertainment.
Please never complain about our ‘primitive’ ancestors when we go to things like this.
Please never complain about the visitors to Bedlam in the 18th century to watch the mentally ill for their entertainment. This ‘anatomy’ show is in the 21st century. All over Europe. Perhaps elsewhere too.
Now the proposal is that people are murdered so some old wealthy person, or some rich ill person can have their healthy body.
Oh this is so bad.
And what is really sick is that the said ‘scientist’ (I use the term, liberally) is bringing some man along who has a really awful physical illness as his side-kick. The said scientist is so deluded  that he thinks he is being kind and ethical trying to relieve this man’s suffering when in fact he is promoting something so vile and rotten I cannot believe he is allowed at a science conference.
It is also CRAP science- but nobody seems to care.
Canavero is so upset that the American public have not taken to his stupid vile ideas that he is taking his bat and ball in a hissy fit and going elsewhere.
Be careful where your children go on holiday.
The body snatchers are back.
See my blog below from  March 2015:
In a  recent report :

‘First human head transplant now possible’,

‘In 1970 Robert White successfully transplanted the head of a rhesus monkey onto the body of a second rhesus.

Dr Sergio Canavero, a member of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group, has proposed using a similar method with humans.

 He believes that it a team of 100 could perform the operation in 36 hours — at a cost of £8.5million. Both heads would have to be removed at the same time, and reconnected within an hour’   (The Telegraph Newspaper):

Now let’s have a little think about this, using our own heads.

First- I am going to pretend to take this seriously and do the science:

Transplants are difficult things for two reasons:

1) immunological problems– where the recipient (host) rejects the donor (graft) tissue because they are incompatible.

Transplants require matching donor to recipient as immunologically close as possible, but the recipient (host) needs to take immuno-suppressive drugs (drugs that suppress the immune system) for life. This makes the recipient susceptible to infections.

Stem cell science gets funding because it does fundamental research that has applications that benefit this clinical area. One area is ‘Regenerative Medicine’. This is getting your own stem cells to grow new tissue, the tissues that have degenerated. If you grow your own tissues you avoid the problems of immunological rejection of a donor transplant.

2)  surgical problems- connecting the organ correctly so that it functions

Being able to re-connect broken nerve cells (neurons) would be of great benefit and the surgery that this claim invokes would be very useful in doing this for patients with spinal cord injuries.

We are having problems connecting the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The central nervous system (CNS) is even more problematic, probably due to the glial cell support, but we are not sure yet.

So all of this points to Canavero’s claim as CRAP SCIENCE!

Now let’s look at the ethics:

You know those ads  for gyms and beauty parlours that tell you that you can ‘get the body you want’?

Well the body I want belongs to someone else (I can’t decide between Brad’s or Angelina’s as I would be happy with either attached to my head!).

So who is about to donate their body so you can have your ugly mug on it?

We can’t even get enough kidneys for transplants and each of us has two kidneys and can survive on one.

Heart transplants rely on someone dying as you cannot survive without your one heart and most of us are a bit reticent about being a donor.

Getting an entire  (healthy) body is even more unlikely. If it is a healthy body why are they dying?

This is all so stupid that I wonder if Canavero doesn’t, in fact, need a brain transplant. Any donors?

Science & Health

Peace on Earth- Solar Power and Power Games

I am watching Bitter Lake a film by Adam Curtis on the BBC iplayer. It is about a deal made by Roosevelt and Abdulaziz in the 1950s guaranteeing Saudi oil for letting Saudi Arabia play caliphate with the Wahhabi regime. We are seeing the consequences of these deals all over the world now.

For a long time I have wondered why we have not invested in Solar Power. There is the sun, powering up this planet, keeping it warm, sending photons of light that all living things rely on. Plants use this light energy to make matter (materials), transforming energy into chemicals. We eat plants or animals that have ate plants to release, from the chemicals, the energy we need to fuel our lives, our metabolic processes. So why can’t we work out a way of using light energy to fuel our homes and cars?

By this I don’t mean those primitive black boxes spread over acres of fields or roofs to make enough energy to fuel a kettle? I mean sophisticated small boxes that capture energy. We have small computers and phones. Why not solar panels? Cheap, small, easily manufactured, linked to small, quiet generators or capacitors? Why, after all this technology are we still making fire to fuel our lives, whether the fire is from wood, coal, gas or oil, it is still fire?

Seeing that film I realise there is too much vested interest in not coming up with cheap, small, solar panels. These would free everybody and liberate us from power companies, so of course they don’t want them, and from countries sitting on oil and gas reserves, so of course they don’t want them. Fracking is not the solution.

A bright entrepreneur should put up a vast sum of money for a reward to the person that comes up with this. That would fuel the research.


Science & Health

The busine$$ of health




We are coming up for elections in the UK and the National Health Service (NHS) is always on the political agenda. However, nobody has the real discussion. They get bogged down in waiting lists and costs and rationing.  But none of us has really decided what the NHS is and what we want. We confuse medicine and health and we put them into a strange administrative stricture called ‘business’.

We have taken on a ‘business model’  for health and health provision. (We have taken on a business model for everything it seems and money is the root of all decisions rather than what it is that we want; our values and aspirations). This business model has probably come from the USA where health is a very big, private business with large vested interests that want to keep it that way.

In a naïve, at best, and daft, at worst, way we have fallen for this model while having an NHS which was set up with a completely different, and in many peoples’ mind better, aspirations. We are in danger of losing the NHS.  I have nothing against business. I have a lot against turning everything into currency. You know the definition of a cynic: ‘a person that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing’. I do not want health to become a mere cost, rather than a true value.

Let me explain what I think business is for those who spend years and lots of money doing business degrees and ending up as Business Administrators- which is not the same as being a business man or woman.

Business has one model really:

  • Buy cheap, sell dear.

In other words, business is about making a profit. It of course looks at getting customers in to spend their money and be loyal to your brand, but the real ethos is, buy cheap, sell dear.

Point number 1: For the NHS to take on this model is deeply and profoundly stupid. The NHS is not set up to make a profit. It is about curing people of an illness (the medical model). That is what it was set up to do: treat people.

The NHS is not free. All the people that work in it are paid. It is given money by the tax-payer to do that. It is a good use of taxes. Those people that are paid to work in the NHS then in turn pay their taxes.

There is a problem in that the NHS is generally used by people who do not pay taxes: children and older people, but the families of the children and the older people themselves have paid taxes into the system. In fact, there is a separate tax for Health and Welfare called National Insurance. The major problem with all British Governments is that they do not ring-fence that money and use it for the purpose it was set up for. It has become just another form of tax, when in fact it is meant to be a public insurance for health care.


Point number 2: The whole point of hospitals and doctors is to repair you and hope you don’t come back. The one thing the NHS doesn’t want is customers. It does not offer a loyalty card for frequent users! It should not offer a card for those that don’t use it to get some sort of discount. It is there for when we need it.  If we were all healthy we would not be using the NHS and that is really the goal. So the NHS is only there for when we are not healthy and is not touting for business.

Businesses need people to buy their products so that they can make a profit. They spend money advertising their goods to attract people to buy their brand and then hope they like it so much they will come back and buy more of it, that they will feel it value for money, while the business also makes a profit. That is not the medical model.

Of course that is the medical model for which the NHS was set up. The health model needs each individual to take responsibility for their health. The NHS is a safety net for when things go wrong, rather than promoting its services, touting for clients.

Some businesses think they must diversify. This is usually a big mistake. Because you had a good idea and made it work does not mean you are the source of all knowledge and ideas. If your idea was a food product, it does not mean that you should go into fashion or home furniture. This is the big mistake of many an entrepreneur. We see it on programmes such as Dragon’s Den where successful entrepreneurs forget themselves. They had one good idea and maybe some luck. This does not make them the world’s expert on other ideas (or politics, education or health).

Point number 3: We need to decide what Health is and what Medicine is and what Social Care is and what Care is and then act on our findings and aspirations.

Our NHS is really for healing those who have become ill. It is good at acute care. It patches you up and then you are meant to be able to take care of yourself as a grown up individual. You are meant to be able to maintain your own health, that is called homeostasis and is the root of all our health, our ability to carry out our lives, our Activities of Daily Living (ADL) such as breathing, walking, feeding, excreting, communicating.

Some of us cannot do all these things and need constant help. That is care.

Some of us lead unhealthy lives and put ourselves at risk. We are repeat offenders/customers in the NHS. But that is our choice and entitlement.

We need to decide about the NHS at a fundamental level as we have some great things about it and some very poor things about it.

We keep blaming it for the poor health of the nation, but firstly, it was set up for acute care and secondly, the British are just culturally not very good at health. We are very good at medicine and clinical care. We do have public health and health promotion, but it is very badly done. We are good at epidemiology, the causes of a disease upon a people, a population. But we are not good at being healthy. We do try to promote health, but we tend to do it in patronising and infantilising ways, merely irritating those we are aiming our good intentions at. It is often carried out by people who do not really understand what they are saying, grasping at the latest poor research findings of a rather weak correlation, such as more people in the summer drown than in the winter and then ending up with some profoundly stupid proposal (should we ban summer or swimming?).

We train our doctors and increasingly our nurses in what is called the Medical Model. It is very successful at diagnosis, finding out what is wrong with somebody by inventing tests and investigations to see which part of us is not performing well, say our haemoglobin or our pulmonary circulation. By investigation we diagnose and then we treat, medically, with pharmacological drugs or by surgery. That’s it. It does not cure your life. It fixes the part that is wrong. The NHS was set up to do that. It should not be accused of being bad at other models as that was not its point.

In the UK we have not decided what health is and who should care about it and who should care about us so we do not know what it is and what we want and what we are willing to do as a nation.

In France they have. So perhaps we can look across the channel to them. The difference between France and Britain, according to the presenter Melvin Bragg is that ‘France is cultured and Britain is civilised’. I think he has made an important point there.

The French have a philosophy of health and of hospitals. They build them differently. They look at health differently. They have a different education to us. All school children study philosophy. They are not embarrassed about having discussions about meaning and context. We are.

The population of France cares about its food. We don’t. We will eat any old crap so long as it is cheap. They care about many of the basic things that we don’t care about. They have a culture of beauty. To have a care service run by people who don’t care about how things are is never going to work.

So while patching people up is done very well by the NHS, caring isn’t. We are civilised people in the UK,  so we care about people, but we are not cultured so we are a bit careless about  how we care, what care we offer. We don’t have a great culture of care. How can you be taught to care by someone that doesn’t care for themselves or others?

When I was young I had school cookery lessons by a woman who taught us to cook food that was really nutritionally poor and had no flavour to it. I got the impression she had never eaten sumptuous food or been exposed to a variety of cookery books and had her imagination stimulated.  How could she teach us to eat well if she had not experienced what that was? She lacked food culture.

We need to learn how to improve the health of the nation. That is a philosophical debate about personhood, independence, community, tax, care, identity, homeostasis, ADLs, ethics and values. It includes funding. It does not include business. Health should not be a business. It should be an ethic. How we care about ourselves and each other. What we want and how to achieve those aspirations and values.

We were told, when we privatised everything, that we would have better services. All we have seen is larger profits for share-holders. A country that does not own its own infrastructure is not really a country. Why would you fight to defend Thames Water, Eon, Glaxo’s, Pfizer’s or Virgin Trains?

We were told that efficiency is the model for business (profit is, actually). Efficiency is a method of getting maximum profit. Speed to get to the end is the goal of many businesses. There is a cookery programme on TV where chefs compete to see who can make the fastest omelette. Really?  Why would you want to eat the fastest omelette rather than the best? We have made many valuable commodities into puerile entertainment to generate money. But we must put our values and aspirations back on the agenda.

Point number 4: We must stop the internal market in the NHS competing for money on false objectives.  How fast you can do something is not the root of medical practice or care. Time and motion studies should not be the ethos of the NHS.  Competition among health care providers has not been shown to provide better care.

The NHS is fabulous at treating illness. It is not fabulous at caring. It is very poor at holistic care. It has the right ethos, but needs better training for caring. We do not have a culture of health and that is what we need in our population and in our NHS. But we must not throw out the NHS because it does not do what it was not set up to do. It was set up to cure. It does that very well. We may want to extend it to care and health, but we need a debate about who should be doing that and what it is we want. It may need a separate structure for health care or it may need a cultural shift, an educational change. We need to keep business out. Health should not be conflated with business, nor should the NHS.

Science & Health

For the sake of the children- 3 parent families

3 parents


I have spent my laboratory working life in stem cell research. I am interested in ageing and stem cells seem a good place to start.

I have spent a lot of time around the regenerative medicine network and around people involved in Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) and In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).

I have written papers in this field and in the ethics of this field. So I am not saying any of this without having thought about it.

In the UK we have been lucky to have the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority which regulates what is allowed. Because something is possible does not mean it should be done. It is possible for you to murder, but you should not do that.

We have medical interventions that can  save our lives, which is to the good, but we also have medical interventions creating lives that could not exist otherwise, and that is where a lot of contention comes in. I know that there are many opinions and feelings on this and I am not convinced who knows best.

We hear about people that cannot have babies, usually from women that cannot have babies, are infertile for some reason. They feel their lives are blighted, Now for me, I think that is a psychological problem as well as a medical one. I think they have focussed on the one thing they can’t do to the detriment of anything else. There are people with an illness that become that illness, they lose all sense of themselves, their identity becomes their illness. The Disability Lobbies have been stalwarts at altering that image. People with a disability are not the disability; that is merely a part of them and they are also able; able to be themselves. They are more than their disability. The same with disease or illness.

We also hear about people wanting babies that cannot have them for other reasons, such as being male.

And now we have people that do not accept this and so want to have babies somehow. Medical interventions and surrogacy have implemented this supply to those that demand it.

Surrogacy is basically renting a womb. There may not be a large payment, but the surrogate mother provides the uterus for the growth of the embryo. The embryo may be from the surrogate’s egg mixed with donor sperm from a man that wants a biological baby or it may be a donated egg from a woman that wants a biological baby, but cannot manage a pregnancy.

The problem of course is who really are the baby’s biological parents? I ask this as I imagine that when the child grows up it will want to know. Never mind the parents wishes. I want to know how the child feels.

We are more than our genetic material, but it plays a large part. Most of our genetic material, DNA, is held in the nucleus of the cell and codes for the genes that make the proteins that make us.

The mitochondria are little organs, organelles, inside each cell in our body. They are responsible for energy conversion. Glucose comes from our food and oxygen from the air that enters our lungs. Both glucose and oxygen cross into our blood and our blood transports the glucose and oxygen to every cell in our body. There insulin helps glucose to be taken into the cell (hence the problem for those with insulin deficits, diabetes) and both glucose and oxygen enter the cell. The glucose and oxygen combine in a similar way that petrol and oxygen combine in a car, burning up to release the energy contained in the glucose molecule, in the atomic bonds. However, in us it is done at a much lower temperature than in a car, with the help of enzymes which are protein molecules and proteins are coded for by DNA.

The glucose and oxygen combine to form ATP (the molecule on my front page) which is used as an energy store to fuel all the reactions of the body. Most of this is done inside mitochondria, so mitochondria are vital for our lives.

Mitochondria are unusual organelles. They contain their own genetic material, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Like any DNA it can have mutations and these get passed on in the maternal line as the mother makes eggs which have mitochondria in, her mitochondria. Each parent also donates nuclear genetic material to the embryo, but only the mother donates mtDNA. We can trace people back to ‘Eve’ by their maternal mitochondria. Many of us are interested in where we come from.

Mitochondria only contain about 37 genes while nuclear DNA (nDNA) contains about 30,000 genes. But the mitochondrial genes are vital and any mutations can lead to serious and very deadly diseases.

If a woman is carrying mutated mitochondrial genes she will pass them on to her offspring regardless of whether her nuclear genes and the father’s nuclear genes are fine.

To circumvent this, women with mitochondrial diseases need three biological donors:

  • one giving an egg with healthy mitochondria ( a donor female) but with the nucleus removed so there is no nuclear genetic material,
  • one giving nuclear genetic material (the ‘mother’ with the faulty mitochondria) but not donating the egg and
  • one giving sperm (the male donor) containing nuclear genetic material. Three partners/donors/parents.

The egg may then be brought through pregnancy by the ‘mother’ if it is only her mitochondrial genetic material that is at fault. In other-words, her nucleus with nuclear genes can be put into the egg with no nucleus but healthy mitochondria and fertilised by sperm. The problem is, you have just cloned a baby.

Again, how do the children feel when they grow up?

I imagine in the first case that the child of a surrogate would want to know the egg donor or the womb donor. In some cultures and religions it is the womb donor who is the mother, not the egg donor. I know of people who have used this method to have children because they wanted children. I am not sure how their children will react to finding out that their mother was rent-a-womb and that their parents have no further interest in her once she has done her bit.

For the mitochondrial child, there may only have been an egg with mitochondrial DNA genetic material donated and the pregnancy might have been in the mother. Not just the social mother, but the biological one.

I think we need to stop thinking about parents rights as there are no real inalienable rights to have children.  Who do you blame if you can’t have children? Who do you sue; yourself?  We need to start thinking about how we use women as just another commodity in our individual choices, in our buying power, in the way we treat each other and the planet as one big shop. We need to start thinking about how the children will feel and what they will want when they grow up. And most of us want to know where we came from, who our biological parents are, what their culture and customs are and how come they sold/gave us to another.

Science & Health

Cancer and Blame



Most of us probably want to believe that we get what we deserve! However, we were not really put on this earth to make these judgements. We cannot tell how other people really live, what they face each day, and what they deserve let alone blame them for all that happens to them.

A lot of money has been spent on bad science, pseudo science and bad public health. Most epidemiology looks backwards, what has happened, and from that tries to predict what will happen. But we don’t have a crystal ball and no event reoccurs in human populations exactly the same way twice. Yes, we can learn from history, but we cannot copy it or predict how things will turn out in the future. Hence economic prophecies based on pseudo scientific principles. What a lot of twaddle we hear from economists.

Public health initiatives are often based on very poor ideas. You read those ridiculous articles such as eating salt increases your chance of heart attack. The chance they are talking about is usually very small and the amount of salt that had to be consumed to increase this small chance was very, very large. But then a public health official will spend a lot of your money on an anti-salt campaign.

You cannot live without salt. All of your reactions in your body (your metabolism) occur in a salty liquid, a plasma-type substance,  which exists both within the cell and between the cells of your body. You are about 80% water and a lot of salt. You are salty. Your kidneys filter water and salt keeping them in balance to meet your body’s needs. In fact where water goes so does salt. One cannot travel without the other. It is to do with osmotic pressure, keeping your cells at the correct salt-water balance. Too much water (i.e. too little salt) and your cells would swell up and burst. Too little water (i.e. too much salt) and your cells will shrivel and die. It is in balance. There can be too much or too little of everything. Life needs a balance. So campaigns that reduce salt too much also do you harm. If you live in a hot country where you sweat to cool yourself down (too much heat in your body kills you) then you are losing water AND salt. You need to replace BOTH.

A lot of bad science and pseudo science has been done on cancer. Why? Because it gets funding is the simple answer. Unfortunately, if you put in a proposal about cancer (or include education as an outcome!) you tend to stand a better chance of funding. While basic research, the science of cancer cells for example, is needed, a whole load of others get funding on the back of this. So we get the poor results and the silly links between things that aren’t linked at all.

I can invent some silly links myself such as ‘watching tv after 6pm gives you cancer’ or ‘reading gossip magazines gives you cancer’. I can prove these while sitting in my armchair. I would bet that nearly everybody that has died of cancer has watched TV after 6pm. There may be a few exceptions, but they would be brushed aside as exceptions. As to the gossip magazine, if you haven’t read one, you still probably read some gossip in a newspaper or heard it on the radio or TV or from a neighbour so I could still justify my arbitary claim somehow. This is because correlation does not prove causation.

Correlation is when two things occur together. The best example I was given to explain this was by a psychologist colleague. This is it:

In summer more people eat ice cream than in winter

In summer more people drown than in winter

Therefore (stupid correlation bit) eating ice cream causes you to drown.

No it doesn’t. More people eat ice cream in summer because they are hot and it may cool them down. More people swim in summer also to cool them down rather than go swimming when it is freezing outside. You could say that cooling down causes you to drown, but you don’t tend to drown from eating ice cream or sweating, which also cools you down. To drown you need to be trying to swim. In water or another liquid. If more people swim in summer than in winter than there are increased numbers of people at risk of not being able to swim in the water they are in and therefore drowning. We could probably argue that fewer people are watching TV in the summer as they are out doors swimming so watching TV prevents you from drowning. I guess it does as most of us don’t watch it while swimming (or even bathing in our bathrooms, although I have stayed in an hotel with a TV in the bathroom). Still, I would not say that watching TV prevents people from drowning. Now I hope you see that two things may occur together, ice cream eating and swimming, but they don’t necessarily cause the effect, drowning. Swimming doesn’t cause drowning either, if you think about it. It is the inability to swim at that moment in time that may cause you to drown. That may be due to a number of reasons: your general inability to swim, sudden changes in conditions, freak accidents.

Most of the bad pseudo science you hear is this sort of statistical analysis of populations done by people that say they are doing science, but they aren’t.

Well you must have heard a lot about cancer if you are over 20 years old. The most obvious one is ‘smoking causes cancer, particularly lung cancer’. I have a colleague who has never smoked or lived with smokers or lived in smoking areas and died of lung cancer. That would be impossible if smoking causes lung cancer. It increases your risk of getting lung cancer. The problem is that we are very bad at thinking about risk. Risk is to do with probability and we humans are not good at that, hence so many of us gamble. I hear people say that they make a living out of gambling. The only people that really make a living at gambling are the bookies and betting shops, the people behind the counter, not the people in front of it. We all have a flutter. But the flutter has been calculated so that we generally lose. The bookies are better at probability than we are.

Richard Doyle is the epidemiologist that came up with the link between smoking and cancer. He was good at his job. What he also said, that people have chosen to ignore is that if you give up smoking by the age of 30 you will, within about 10 years, have lungs as if you have never smoked. All those campaigns wasting money on getting teenagers to quit. It is the older (parents) that need to quit, the 30+ year olds. All that wasted money because they did not read the rest of the article!

How many of you have been asked by the doctor if you have ever smoked and if you were to say yes, 25 years ago, they would write you down as a smoker and blame all your problems on that. My father gave up smoking 40 years before he died. Still, any pulmonary (lung) condition he had they tried to blame on his having smoked. I would think that being a ‘Bevan Boy’ (sent down the coal mines) in World War 2 at a young age would have been more detrimental to his pulmonary health. Living 40 years after smoking and not having lung cancer may have been a bit of a give away in diagnostic terms; but why go with intelligence when you can go with poor science? There is a lot of stupid on the planet and wow, am I fed up of hearing it.

Coal tar has a detrimental effect on genes. It has carcinogenic chemicals, ones that can alter genetic material, ie cause mutations. That is what a mutation is. A change in one letter in your genetic code. You have three billion letters so finding a change in one of them is a tad difficult. Coupled to that you have 10 trillion cells. Each cell has that 3 billion letter dictionary. So you are looking for one letter change amongst 3 billion x 10 trillion. That is a one in a 30 billion, trillion letter. Now do you see the problem?

When daft pseudo-gerontologists (I have one in mind) come up with ways to live longer, which basically boil down to the need to diagnose people earlier  with any disease potential (and we all have that) so they can live longer they aren’t really gerontologists. They aren’t biologists. They are popularists. They are talking for the sake of hearing their own voices. Where do you look? Which one of the 10 trillion cells? Which one of the 3 billion letters in one of those cells? Do you think people haven’t been trying to diagnose cancer before it kills you? Not just treat it, but spot it as early as possible?

We have always known that diagnosing cancer is problematic. By the time we can see it there needs to be about a gram of cells. A gram is a very small amount. A teaspoon of sugar (which may ‘help the medicine go down’!) has about 5 grams on it. A gram of cells contains about a billion cells. That’s a lot of cells. Cancerous cells.

The problem with bad science is the lack of understanding of the biology of us.

Cancer has two things going on; one is genetic, the other is cell growth. The genetic bit is that there needs to be a mutation and they occur randomly. A mutation can hit a gene that has no effect on cancerous growth. But it can hit a gene that does. However, one gene in one cell won’t kill you. What you need is for the cell to grow and grow.

Most cells only grow, make new cells, to replace old cells that have worn out and died. Most of your bodily activities are carried out by ‘terminally differentiated cells’ functional end cells which do not grow and make new cells. For instance oxygen is carried in your blood by red blood cells (erythrocytes). They are terminally differentiated. They have completed their growth and development and have become restricted in what they can do (differentiated). They can only be red blood cells. When they get worn out they get replaced by cells further back in development, growing cells that are quite undeveloped. They form pools of new cells that then go on to differentiate (become different) and highly specialised, such as red blood cells that only really carry out one function, carry oxygen in the blood. It is a bit like any manufacturing process. You take a sheet of metal, It could be made into anything. If is made into the front driver side of a car door. It does not then become a car roof.

The early, underdeveloped cells that provide later cells are the Stem Cells.

If you have a mutation in a cell that is about to become a red blood cell (a reticulocyte) it may not have much effect. Some red blood cells may lack a certain protein (genes code for proteins). If the mutation is in a gene for the protein that carries oxygen (haemoglobin) then there is a problem, the red cell is inefficient. If it is in a gene for cell growth it has no effect as red cells don’t grow. To get a cancer in blood cell you need to affect the cells that grow, the stem cells. There are not many of them and they are hard to find. Why would you look for them unless you already knew there was a blood cancer?

So predicting cancer and finding cancer is very difficult. If it was easy those pseudo-scientists could do it too.

Cristian Tomasetti and cancer geneticist Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have just released results showing that it is bad luck getting cancer, a matter of random chance. Which gene and which cell is not predictable.

Some cancers are more common than others. Cancers occur more often in tissues that are replaced often such as the linings of tubes (stomach tubes, gut tubes, urinary tubes) and the linings of us, our skin. These are from epithelial tissues and the cancers they give rise to are called carcinomas.

Cells involved in support and transport are also replaced due to wear and tear. Each time a cell is replaced it may cause a mutation to be made in its genetic material ( a misreading of the code). Tissue such as blood, bone, cartilage and dermal tissue is replaced often. This sort of tissue, connective tissue can therefore become cancerous causing cancers called sarcomas.

Cells that seldom grow and divide, muscle and nerves, seldom pass on mistakes so muscle and neural cancers are very rare. The neural tissue that supports nerve cells, glial tissue, does grow and that can become cancerous. Any tissue that grows is thus vulnerable. Tissue that doesn’t grow is less vulnerable. That’s it. Most of the other populist stuff about cancer is not worth the funding or the TV time. Hopefully this latest finding, which is what we all knew anyway, will stop some of the dreadful nonsense and false hope. Even more importantly, it may stop the blame.



Science & Health

Flu- Back in the food chain

We say we, humans, are at the top of the food chain.

We aren’t.

We are in the food chain.

We eat food to provide energy for all our activities, but there are billions of organisms that eat us. We worry about big organisms like sharks, but our real dangers come from some that are minute, micro-organisms, organisms that are so small you need a microscope to see them.

Some micro-organisms are useful, the ‘friendly’ bacteria, commensal, meaning they share the table. They use our waste products in our large colon. The large colon or bowel contains the food that we cannot digest and absorb into our bodies, such as fibre or roughage, usually cellulose. We don’t have the enzymes to digest these food types. If we cannot digest it this undigested food moves into our large colon. This undigested food, waste, provides food for micro-organisms in our guts. In return, their waste that they excrete into our guts is stuff we need such as Vitamin K. As they say ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’.

Unfortunately, a few of these microbes are not friendly. These other microbes are ‘pathogenic’, causing us disease either by their growth or by their waste.

I have just succumbed to a tiny virus. I feel like I have gone a few rounds with a heavy weight boxer, Mohammed Ali or somebody of that calibre in their day. But no. Merely a virus a few microns across (a micron, or micrometre, is a millionth of a metre). I am providing lunch for said virus, They are providing waste products that are making me feel wiped out.

This process of infection is causing temperature changes that may only be a rise of a degree or so, but can make you feel so bad. Going from say 36.8 Celsius to 37.8 is pretty bad. Half a degree above that, 38.4 is the start of that awful feeling, fever. You become very visceral, aware or all your muscles and bones.

That the human body can fight back (the process is called homeostasis) and return you to normal is amazing.

I don’t want to become one of those people that obsess about their health, but perhaps we can become a little too blasé. The body we have is the only body we have.

I hope none of you succumb to the micro-organisms that seek you out for their lunch, able to bring down people and nations.

But it is worth remembering that so far, more of us have died from pathogenic micro-organisms than all the wars put together.

We are definitely not at the top of the food chain.

They are.