Be afraid

Everyone must read this article about ‘Joel’s Army’ and be afraid. It’s a movement by radical Dominionists to build an informal paramilitary organization (at this time, it seems to be more attitude than organization) to prepare to fight to impose a kind of Christian fascism on the world. It may be a group small in number (but not that small, I fear), but they have a lot of fanaticism and lunacy to amplify their power.

Todd Bentley has a long night ahead of him, resurrecting the dead, healing the blind, and exploding cancerous tumors. Since April 3, the 32-year-old, heavily tattooed, body-pierced, shaved-head Canadian preacher has been leading a continuous “supernatural healing revival” in central Florida. To contain the 10,000-plus crowds flocking from around the globe, Bentley has rented baseball stadiums, arenas and airport hangars at a cost of up to $15,000 a day. Many in attendance are church pastors themselves who believe Bentley to be a prophet and don’t bat an eye when he tells them he’s seen King David and spoken with the Apostle Paul in heaven. “He was looking very Jewish,” Bentley notes.

Tattooed across his sternum are military dog tags that read “Joel’s Army.” They’re evidence of Bentley’s generalship in a rapidly growing apocalyptic movement that’s gone largely unnoticed by watchdogs of the theocratic right. According to Bentley and a handful of other “hyper-charismatic” preachers advancing the same agenda, Joel’s Army is prophesied to become an Armageddon-ready military force of young people with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian “dominion” on non-believers.

“An end-time army has one common purpose — to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion,” Bentley declares on the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada. “The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel’s Army. … Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God’s kingdom on earth.”

These people are insane. They’re fed on a diet of lies and encouraged to believe that violence will be the answer, and reason is to be rejected.

The anti-intellectualism is overt. They’re actually proud of their contempt for learning; the article discusses the influence of a Canadian (errm, what is it with all the mild-mannered Canadians in this outfit?) Pentecostalist, William Branham.

Michael Barkun, a leading scholar of radical religion, notes that in 1958, Branham began teaching “Serpent Seed” doctrine, the belief that Satan had sex with Eve, resulting in Cain and his descendants. “Through Cain came all the smart, educated people down to the antediluvian flood — the intellectuals, bible colleges,” Branham wrote in the kind of anti-mainstream religion, anti-intellectual spirit that pervades the Joel’s Army movement to this day. “They know all their creeds but know nothing about God.”

I’m rather offended to be lumped in with bible colleges, but compared to Joel’s Army, the bible colleges actually are beacons of rationality. And if you think that’s bad, an insider, Ernie Gruen, has revealed some of their other doctrines…which sound vaguely familiar.

According to Gruen’s report, students at the school were taught that they were a “super-race” of the “elected seed” of all the best bloodlines of all generations — foreknown, predestined, and hand-selected from billions of others to be part of the “end-time Omega generation.”

Though he’d once promoted these doctrines himself, Gruen became convinced that the movement was turning into an end-times cult, marked by what he summarized as “spiritual threats, fears, and warnings of death,” “warning followers to beware of other Christians” and exhibiting “a ‘super-race’ mentality toward the training of their children.”

Let’s hope this is a fringe cult that will fade away, rather than rising to greater power. Let’s hope. But … Sarah Palin’s home church is dominionist, with connections to Joel’s Army.

Afraid yet?

Reprogramming the pancreas

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

Wow…so have you heard about this result?

One goal of regenerative medicine is to instructively convert adult cells into other cell types for tissue repair and regeneration. Although isolated examples of adult cell reprogramming are known, there is no general understanding of how to turn one cell type into another in a controlled manner. Here, using a strategy of re-expressing key developmental regulators in vivo, we identify a specific combination of three transcription factors (Ngn3 (also known as Neurog3) Pdx1 and Mafa) that reprograms differentiated pancreatic exocrine cells in adult mice into cells that closely resemble β-cells. The induced β-cells are indistinguishable from endogenous islet β-cells in size, shape and ultrastructure. They express genes essential for β-cell function and can ameliorate hyperglycaemia by remodelling local vasculature and secreting insulin. This study provides an example of cellular reprogramming using defined factors in an adult organ and suggests a general paradigm for directing cell reprogramming without reversion to a pluripotent stem cell state.

This is a big deal, I think, so allow me to translate.

First, a little caveat: this is a recent result published in Nature, and it is basic science, not clinical work. Before you start thinking it’s a new treatment for diabetes, I have to dash a little cold water on you and warn you that this has a long, long way to go before it can be applied to humans…but it does open the door to some future strategies that might be applied.

The pancreas is a fairly complicated organ. It’s made up of a variety of different cells that we can toss into a couple of different classes. There are garden variety support cells — mesenchyme, connective tissue, components of the circulatory system, and the ductwork of the organ — that provide building services for the other cell types. Then there are exocrine cells, cells that produce quantities of important substances that are piped directly into the digestive tract via ducts. Among the most important materials exported by this route are bicarbonate buffers to neutralize stomach acids and enzymes like amylase to digest sugars. Finally, the class of cells that most people are familiar with, because they are the subject of a common disease, are the endocrine cells. These are cells that generate hormonal signals that are secreted into the blood stream, and the most familiar of these are the beta (β) cells, which are organized into clumps called islets and which secrete insulin…and if something goes awry with the β cells, the resulting disease is called diabetes.

What the researchers did was identify a small subset of transcription factors, the genes Ngn3, Pdx1 and Mafa, that are sufficient to switch on the insulin production genes in non-insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. They can turn exocrine cells into β cells, which produce insulin, and these cells reduce the effects of diabetes.

The way they did this was to insert the transcription factors (and a gene that makes a glowing protein, GFP, as a marker) into adenoviruses, and then inject the virus directly into the pancreases of genetically immunodeficient (to reduce immune response complications) adult mice. The viruses infected a subset of the pancreatic cells, preferentially the exocrine cells, and started pumping out the transcription factors. As is common in these kinds of genetic engineering experiments, the use of viral transfection is perhaps the scariest part of the story; viruses aren’t trivial to keep in check. However, they report that they also did later PCR tests of adjacent tissues and found no evidence that the virus spread beyond the target organ; they also found that inducing the expression of the 3 transcription factors in other kinds of cells, like muscle, seems to do nothing. These genes are only potent in pancreatic cells that are already primed to be competent to respond to the signals generated by the transcription factors.

The virus is also not needed for long term maintenance of these cells. The virus in the pancreas, as determined by PCR, is cleared away after about 2 months. It seems that all it takes is a brief jolt of expression of Ngn3, Pdx1 and Mafa to switch susceptible cells into the β cell state, and that the developmental program is then self-sustaining.

The authors also made diabetic mice by injecting them with streptozotocin, which kills islet β cells, and then gave them the viral cocktail injection. It did not cure their diabetes, but it did give them significantly greater glucose tolerance, and they did measure increased blood insulin levels. One reason the treatment may not be as effective as it could be is that it simply converts random, scattered exocrine cells into single β cells that are not organized into the islets of the normal pancreas.

A lot of attention has been paid to embryonic stem cell and adult stem cell technologies, and those are both important and provide research and treatment opportunities that must not be neglected, but this is a third way: mastering the developmental control genes of the cell so that we can reprogram mature cells into any cell type we need. While injecting a person’s pancreas with a collection of viruses to rebuild missing cell types might be a little hazardous and crude, there may come a day when we can collect a few cells from an individual by a scraping or biopsy, grow them in a dish to get enough, tickle their transcription factors to cause them to differentiate into the cell, tissue, or organ type we want, and transplant the final, immunocompatible product right back into the patient.

This is the direction developmental medicine can take us — I hope you’re all ready to support it.

Zhou Q, Brown J, Kanarek A, Rajagopa J, Melton DA (2008) In vivo reprogramming of adult pancreatic exocrine cells to β-cells. Nature Aug 27. [Epub ahead of print].

Banking with Jesus is a bad idea

Integrity Bank in Georgia decided to build their business model on Christian principles.

Integrity’s employees regularly prayed before meetings or in branch lobbies with customers, while the bank gave 10 percent of its net income to charities.

“We felt if we prayed and obeyed God’s word and did what He asked, that He would help us be successful,” the bank’s founder, Steve Skow, told the Journal-Constitution in 2005.

Chalk this one up to another example of how religion fails and we really ought to base our decisions on reality: the bank failed. You really can’t rely on that God fella, you know.

Perhaps one contributing factor was their obedience to that other Christian principle, greed.

CEO Steve Skow earned $1.8 million that year, while senior lender and executive vice president Doug Ballard earned $847,222. A typical community bank CEO, banking consultants said, earn roughly $300,000 per year.

And say…isn’t there something in the Bible that prohibits lending at interest, too?

Create dollars for education by clicking

I mentioned this before, but time is running out and the full allotment of money hasn’t been used up yet. If you go to the Big Think site and watch a video about inspiring scientists, Pfizer will spend a dollar on DonorsChoose. The videos are actually pretty good, they aren’t just commercials, and it’s an easy way to donate to a worthy cause by investing nothing but a tiny amount of time.

Surprise! McCain doesn’t persuade me to switch my vote with his VP choice

So McCain has picked Sarah Palin as VP. Supposedly she has some credibility as a good choice for dealing with energy issues, but near as I can tell she’s of the drill-in-marginal-areas school, not someone who’s going to pursue alternative energy sources, and is going to be a favorite of the oil companies — Dick Cheney with a less evil face. Worst of all, from my perspective, she also has a history of pandering to creationist ignorance, promoting the bogus ‘teach the controversy’ nonsense in the absence of any real scientific controversy.

Guess I won’t be voting Republican this year.