The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, February 19, 2009

News from the science front

Every day at the Genomics Forum an email with a web-crawled roundup of genomics-related news stories pops up in my inbox. Checking even the most interesting ones, let alone blogging about them, could be a real time sink, so I won't be doing this every day. But as an experiment, turning a selection of these stories into an Avedon-style linky post might be worth a try.

'Why should all our children be at risk because a few middle-class idiots have conspiracy theories against the medical establishment?' asks a column in the Daily Mail, the paper arguably more responsible than any other for this public health disaster.

The Telegraph runs a fascinating autobiographical account of the early years of neuropsychiatry, by the son of one pioneer. Lithium works but can't be patented, because it's a mineral.

The first nanobot with two arms has been built from DNA. The annual conference of the AAAS has heard papers on clues from synthetic biology to the origin and evolution of life and the evolutionary history of modern humans in Africa.

Richard Dawkins reviews Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Oddly enough, I think you'll find Dawkins tends to agree with Coyne.
Even if we bend over backwards to concede that scientific truth is no more than that which enables you to pilot your way reliably, safely and predictably around the real universe, it is in exactly this sense that – at the very least – evolution is true. Evolutionary theory pilots us around biology reliably and predictively, with a detailed and unblemished success that rivals anything in science. The least you can say about evolutionary theory is that it works. All but pedants would go further and assert that it is true.
Finally, a nice example of what selfish genes can do: carry out their own genetic engineering.

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Oh I do love the gall of the Daily Mail, predictably the comments are full of wackos though. The rest of the reading will have to wait till lunchtime but cheers for the brain food. Just praying that the nanobot looks as cool as it does in my head...

That wasp thing is also covered in Carl Zimmer's 2000 book Parasite Rex.

I didn't like that Telegraph article at all. There's certainly a lot to be condemned in the history of psychiatry, but it's just as sneeringly unpleasant about things which were genuine breakthroughs and vastly improved people's lives.

In particular, lithium's been a very popular treatment and is still in use. A good friend of mine's on lithium currently, and it's helped a lot.

PM, I must say that Parasite Rex is one of the most gruesomely entertaining science books I've ever read. I still remember the looks on friends' faces as I recounted particularly 'interesting' examples such as that wasp :)

The interesting article by Mr. Wittenborn slurs over an importabt topic, the side-effects of some psychotropic drugs. Thorazine was indeed the first antipsychotic. It was embraced by shrinks around 1960, and its most prevalent and horrid side-effect was noticed ten years later: Tardive Dyskinesia (TD). It's those "tremors" and "twitches" that the writer mentions in passing.
TD is a very serious side-effect that I have seen in action. One makes, e.g., involuntary facial movements---tongue thrusts and horrid grimaces---that don't always go away when one ceases taking the drug. It is the most common side-effect of Thorazine and its successors in the first generation of antipsychotics. Since it took ten years to connect these phenomena with the medication, and since the effect sometimes took long-term use to arise, the word TARDIVE (from a Latin or Greek root meaning LATE, or DELAYED) was placed before the term for a muscular problem.
Today we have a new generation, the ATYPICAL antipsychotics. They are prescribed as if they were candies (Americans should think of M&Ms). They are atypical ONLY in the sense that they are thought to cause fewer cases of TD. I DOUBT THIS. They have not been around long enough for adequate statistical analysis of their effects. The Thorazine example should alert us to the problem. But these pills are being pushed with at least as much enthusiasm as was Thorazine. This is just as irresponsable as the other phony cures described in this interesting article. Please be careful when your GP gleefully tries to prescribe atypicals.

Zotz, I thought the point made about lithium in that article was that it is an effective treatement that is under-used because it doesn't profit the drug companies.

I didn't read the article as sneeringly unpleasant, just a bit cynical and personal.

I was mainly actually angered at the statement that the "real impact" of chlorpromazine was in saving the government money, which in my view writes off with quite shockingly insouciance the suffering of the patients involved and the benefit a large number of them got from it. There were many other points, though, where it seemed to miss no opportunity to rubbish the people and the treatments even if Wittenborn needed to take some slight liberties with the facts to manage it. In the lithium case, his implication was that it's underused because it's underpromoted. The fact that regular blood tests are needed to make sure that blood levels don't cause damaging or even fatal side-effects is, in my view, a more major issue (and pushes the cost up massively), although even so it's still a highly recommended and widely-used treatment. It's still at the top of the list in some prescribing guidelines.

I'm sorry. I'm ranting a bit. A few phrases in the article got under my skin slightly. It wasn't just it being in the Telegraph. Honest.


Graham, these are all fair points, and ranting is one of the things that blog comments are for.

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