An abuse of stem cells

I’m a developmental biologist, so of course I’m enthusiastic about the potential for stem cell therapies. I’m also aware of the limitations and risks. I absolutely hated that heavy-handed, nonsensical satire of stem cell research that South Park aired several years ago, in which Christopher Reeve was shown eating fetuses for their stem cells, which enabled him to walk.

But then, that’s South Park: almost always great thudding ham-handed bullshit. No way people could believe that just gobbling down stem cells would cure diseases.

Unfortunately, as we’re fast learning in the political arena, there is no bullshit so rank that you can’t find someone won’t chow down on it. Science-Based Medicine discusses stem cell tourism — there is such a thing — where people with serious illnesses travel to countries with less restrictive medical practices to get shot up with stem cells. So here’s the story of Jim Gass, a wealthy man who had a stroke and wanted to be healed…so he did research “on the internet” and got the brilliant idea to repair the damage with stem cells. And then he got worse and needed a more conventional medical intervention.

The surgeon gasped when he opened up his patient and saw what was in his spine. It was a huge mass, filling the entire part of the man’s lower spinal column.

“The entire thing was filled with bloody tissue, and as I started to take pieces, it started to bleed,” said Dr. John Chi, the director of Neurosurgical Spine Cancer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was stuck to everything around it.”

He added, “I had never seen anything like it.”

Tests showed that the mass was made up of abnormal, primitive cells and that it was growing very aggressively. Then came the real shocker: The cells did not come from Jim Gass. They were someone else’s cells.

Mr. Gass, it turned out, had had stem cell therapy at clinics in Mexico, China and Argentina, paying tens of thousands of dollars each time for injections in a desperate attempt to recover from a stroke he had in 2009. The total cost with travel was close to $300,000.

Stem cells are not magic. They are plastic cells that are pluripotent — they can differentiate into a variety of different tissues. But they need instructions and signals in order to develop in a constructive way, and the hard part is reconstructing environmental cues to shape their actions. They’re like Lego building blocks — you can build model spaceships or submarines or houses with them, and they have a lot of creative potential, but it’s not enough to just throw the Lego blocks into a bag and shake them really hard. Basically, Jim Gass was getting the cellular equivalent of receiving massive injections of Legos, in the forlorn hope that they would spontaneously repair his nervous system.

Gorski also points out one of the warning signs that this is a quack therapy: the locations where it was done.

Ask yourself this: Why are so many of these clinics located in countries like Kazakhstan, China, Mexico, and Argentina? It’s not because the scientific facilities are so much more advanced there. It’s because regulatory oversight protecting patients is lax to nonexistent.

Con artists always seek out the most permissive environment.

It takes a fool to deny the obvious

Neil Shubin reports that Bible tracts have begun appearing in copies of his book, Your Inner Fish, in bookstores. He even has photographic evidence.

shubintract

This is remarkable news. We now know how bible tracts are made: they are degenerate forms descended from more complex and sophisticated texts, and they appear spontaneously when two pages, who love each other very much, are pressed together. They’re kind of like coke cans that way, arising without human intervention.

cokecan

Oh, except that you’d have to be an idiot to think that.

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Google is not a synonym for knowledge

So you want to be a science communicator. You need to read this article on becoming a science writer. Here’s a short list of tips:

  • Obtain the highest education possible and dismiss the notion to not pursue formal schooling and, instead, “learn on the job.” The latter is damaging advice, usually given by people without specialized education, or by those who benefit from your unpreparedness. If you actually get the job, you will always “learn the praxis” while on it. But you will never compensate, “on the job,” for the formal education you missed. Science, math and technology are not taught in the streets.
  • Read by far more topics than you can write about; develop a sense for science.
  • Travel internationally to scientific meetings and try to understand the cultural contexts in which science is done elsewhere; this could be difficult since we all see the planet through parochial preconceptions. However, modern science is done collaboratively and international partnerships are ubiquitous. Writing from home will keep your mind at home.
  • Write about science itself, rather than people in science. Do not celebritize individuals, but grant credit to all who deserve it.
  • Do not become enticed by the ivory-tower institutions as the sole source of science stories to report; that will turn you into a snob writer.
  • And remember that a good science tale should be good by itself, no matter its origin, but only a good story teller would make it shine.

I had some reservations about that first point — the amateur or citizen scientist can be a good contributor. But the good ones have a lot of discipline and drive and focus, and get a specialized education unconventionally, so it’s actually an important point.

What is a total disaster, though, are all the people who think they can master a subject via a combination of Google and Wikipedia. You absolutely can not. You can get quick bits of information, but you don’t acquire this abstract thing called knowledge: you need the depth you get from reading books and soaking in the details of the literature, so that you can make connections and grasp the broader context.

The rest is good advice. I’m putting this on my list of things to hand out to the students in my fall term writing course.

Venom Hunters is a fraud

The Discovery Channel (their reputation is so bad, you’re probably already booing) has a ‘reality’ show called Venom Hunters. It is about teams of courageous reptile experts who make a living — and save lives — by capturing rare and deadly venomous animals in the wild, and milking them of toxins for use in antivenoms. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? It was probably snapped right up by the channel when the premise was presented to them.

Only a few problems with it, though: they’re mostly not experts, that’s not how venom is collected, nobody makes a living off this fictitious profession, it’s unlikely that any of the venom is being used for its stated purpose, and at least some of the animal captures are staged, using captive snakes.

Over on Science Sushi, you can read a very detailed exposé of the phony staff, the bogus stories, and their potentially illegal activities. It’s as phony as that mermaid ‘documentary’.

Man, the Discovery Channel must really hate Christie Wilcox. She’s filleting them.

Get out of our way, Elon Musk

We at UMM are having our yearly HHMI-sponsored summer research program. In addition to having undergraduates working away in our labs, we also have some more social activities — and yesterday we joined with the science students at the Morris public schools for a bottle rocket launch.

No, not that kind of bottle rocket. In this case, they using two liter plastic bottles, filling them up with some water, and then pumping them up with air pressure. Then…whoosh, off they go. The rockets were also assembled with fins and nose cones and those traditional bits. The elementary and middle school kids had to deal with various constraints — they had “budgets”, and had to “pay” for every bit of cardboard and duct tape they stuck on their bottles, and also for the water fuel and the amount of pressure they put in the bottles. They also had specific goals: distance traveled, time aloft, that sort of thing. Our HHMI students had no constraints, so it was a little unfair. They weren’t part of the competition, though, and the kids whose rockets outperformed the college students’ got extra points on their victory, so it was OK.

The UMM rockets did pretty well, but yeah, some of the kids’ rockets with their minimal approach did do better.

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Most useful paper I’ve read this week

I’m teaching our science writing course in the Fall, and I’m also one of the instructors in our teachers’ workshop next month (we still have room for more participants!). And now I’ve found a useful, general, basic paper that I have to hand out.

Motulsky, HJ (2014) Common Misconceptions about Data Analysis and Statistics. JPET 351(1):200-205.

What it’s got is clear, plain English; brevity; covers some ubiquitous errors; will be incredibly useful for our introductory biology students. You should read it, too, for background in basic statistical literacy. Here’s the abstract.

Ideally, any experienced investigator with the right tools should be able to reproduce a finding published in a peer-reviewed biomedical science journal. In fact, however, the reproducibility of a large percentage of published findings has been questioned. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons for this, but one reason may be that investigators fool themselves due to a poor understanding of statistical concepts. In particular, investigators often make these mistakes: 1) P-hacking, which is when you reanalyze a data set in many different ways, or perhaps reanalyze with additional replicates, until you get the result you want; 2) overemphasis on P values rather than on the actual size of the observed effect; 3) overuse of statistical hypothesis testing, and being seduced by the word “significant”; and 4) over-reliance on standard errors, which are often misunderstood.

I can probably open any biomedical journal and find papers that commit all four of those errors.