Archives For health

viruses render

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of talk about using viruses to fight cancer and as the best vector for gene therapy to finally conquer diseases once thought incurable. But aside from several promising trials in the lab and in select hospitals, not much from this research has been cleared for use in real world patients. Until now, as a genetically modified herpes virus received the formal green light to help combat advanced melanoma in clinical practice. Considering how many ups and downs this technology had over the last 35 years, this is very important first step in showing that we finally know what we’re doing and the science is mature enough to treat the average Joe and Jane. Labs which may have put viral therapy on the back burner, worried that the current regulatory climate would be too conservative to ever approve their products can get back to work and ramp up their viral pipelines. And of course, millions will soon benefit from this promising new class of drugs to send more and more cases of cancer into remission.

But of course there are some limitations. The currently approved drug, T-VEC, hasn’t shown all that much life-extending potential in the lab and needs to be injected directly into the tumors. It gave patients with advanced melanoma an additional 4.4 month which was just a whisker away from desired statistical significance for the population being tested. However, since these were very advanced cases, with many likely comorbidities, and it triggered an immune response that finally saw the tumors as foreign invaders and helped control their attempts to spread. Given in concert with existing therapies, it should be very effective, and if it is, its manufacturer can seek approval for use in less advanced forms of melanoma against which it should do even better. In short, it may not be the “cure” we’ve always wanted, but it’s a very important step forward and a very encouraging sign of things to come, and widespread clinical use of viral therapies will give us new insights into how to better refine them to make them safer and more potent.

Of course we need to keep in mind that the result of all this work will not be the mythical cancer cure advertised by many quacks and snake oil peddlers. Cancer seems to have existed almost as long as multicellular life on Earth, and while some creatures found ways of coping with it, it’s still a constant threat because it’s such a complex degenerative condition affecting virtually any cell type there is in our bodies. We probably can never hope to completely eliminate it, but it’s a realistic goal to develop a wide array of treatments that quickly send it into remission, which will turn what was once a death sentence into a fight we can win more often than not. With several types of cancer that’s exactly the case with conventional treatments. Imagine how much better targeted viral therapies which could spare more healthy cells than chemotherapy and radiation will be for patients over the next decade. And while there will always be a ghost of a recurrence hanging over their head no matter how hard we try, knowing that there is a really good chance to once again beat it, may make up for nature’s insistence on turning some of our cells evil…

[ illustration by Art of the Cell ]

pig out ad

If there was an award for the most reputable organization with the worst track record of making scientific pronouncements to the public, needlessly scaring millions while giving militant granola types and snake oil salespeople like Mike Adams and the Food Babe ammunition to make their fear-mongering and scamming look legitimate at first glance, the IARC would win it hands down because no one else even comes close. Pretty much every other press release they issue just makes experts and doctors want to smack them upside the head, and it’s no different with their latest announcement which sent much of the internet into a state of despair. Bacon, they say, is carcinogenic, so all that sweet, sweet processed pig with which the web is in lust, increases the odds of certain gastrointestinal cancers by as much as 18% according to studies they reviewed in their capacity to rule on the strength of evidence for whether something causes cancer. With that came worldwide weeping and gnashing of teeth as countless breakfasts were ruined.

This traumatic event for bacon-lovers everywhere, this Aporkalypse as none might call it, is the result of a systematic review of studies showing that a diet high in processed meat is linked to a slight increase in certain types of bowel cancers. That by itself doesn’t necessarily seem like an alarming finding in and of itself. After all, we’ve known that for many years. What was alarming, and very much remains so, is how the IARC communicated its review of these studies and how its classification system works because it turns generally well known research about what might cause cancer into an arcane classification system for carcinogens which often misinforms much of the public. Because the group only rates the quality of evidence found by studies rather than notes the true risks posed by the studied carcinogens, according to its system, bacon seems as dangerous for you as smoking and breathing asbestos fibers while taking a nap on a bed made of uranium. But it’s not. If anything, smoking accounts for a fifth of all diagnosed cancers while a diet of red and processed meat might be linked to a sixth of that amount of diagnoses.

In other words, while cigarettes and bacon are classified the same way by the IARC, the former is much less dangerous for you than the latter, depending on your genetics and lifestyle. If you shovel a dozen strips of bacon into your mouth every morning, follow that with a bottle of beer, then smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for a decade, you’re pretty much guaranteed a very nasty form of cancer in your future. We know this because it’s been very extensively studied by multiple scientists in both animals and humans, the IARC thoroughly reviewed all the published work, and was satisfied that the methodology behind them was sound. That’s why it exists, it’s a formal peer review committee on public health policy advice about cancers. But because of the confusion around the classification system it adopted for how it feels about studies, its decisions about the real world implications of the research it reviews are incredibly confusing. Not only do we get bacon on the same list of carcinogens as smoking, but we end up with the infamous and much abused Group 2B and Group 2A, which list countless things as maybe carcinogenic.

Basically, things in these groups “possibly” or “probably” cause cancer, which means that there was some sort of study in a cell culture, or on mice, showing that the chemical in question could somehow be linked to a cancerous tumor and the IARC thought it wasn’t a terrible study. Based on how well it felt about this study and others like it, the group would assign the chemical to one of these “maybe” categories. They don’t actually mean that something possibly or probably is a carcinogen, but that some scientists presented studies that made the group question if there is some chance that a particular chemical or compound causes some form of cancer. This is how cell phones ended up Group 2B, despite there being no biologically plausible mechanisms for a cell phone to trigger cancerous tumors. Someone adjusted enough study parameters to create some hints that maybe in some cases electromagnetic radiation could be linked to one specific type of cancer, or shot enough of it at cells in a petri dish to do some damage that looks like the start of a cancerous tumor, and the IARC chose not to take too much issue with the papers.

This is how it was with bacon. In studies showing links between processed meats and cancer, a diet disproportionately high in these things was found to be the culprit. Eating anything, even an apparently evil, carcinogenic sausage or bacon strip, once in a while, won’t increase your odds of being diagnosed with a bowel cancer in any significant way. So really, the proper advice is to moderate your daily intake of both red and processed meat, which the IARC actually said. But it did so in a way that put the onus of actually determining what moderation looks like, and how to go about it to an amorphous worldwide community of doctors and medical bureaucrats. Bacon, sausages, and steak, cause cancer just like cigarettes, they tell the world without noting that a cigarette is far deadlier than a bacon strip, figure out how you want to deal with that, have your doctors and researchers, who we’ve now just informed that this is a real problem, tell you what you should do to avoid killer tumors in your tract. Gee IARC, thanks for that helping hand.

And this is where we get to the heart of the problem. The IRAC’s very confusing and convoluted pronouncements which rely on its arcane, opaque classification system gives people little in the way of useful guidance by refusing to differentiate between the levels of risk posed by exposure to confirmed carcinogens, and by listing things in two confusing “maybe” piles with weak or very inconclusive evidence behind their carcinogenic potential, they hand quacks and modern snake oil salespeople a goldmine for new outlandish claims by which they can scare people to buy the random, over-priced crap they peddle. Can you think of a bigger disservice to the public than a scientific group that just issues random lists of scary things that can kill you with virtually no real elaboration and tells you to figure out what to do about it with your doctor? How had could it be to go into a little more detail? These people are scientists. Don’t scientists love to talk about the finer details of their work? And trust me, if it’s about cancer, people will definitely listen…

sitting skeleton

Remember when sitting was the new smoking and pop sci blogs constantly told you that should you fail to get a standing desk, say goodbye to years off your life? And so you rushed out to get some sort of a conversion kit so you can stand at your current desk, or petitioned your boss for new office furniture to ward off the Grim Reaper and diligently stood while you worked so you’d dodge diabetes, hypertension, and all the other health problems related to the great evil of your glutes meeting cushions. If you’re feeling tired and sore from all that standing around, here are some good news and bad news. The good news is that you can finally afford to sit down to rest your weary rear end because a newly published study of over 5,000 people found no increases in mortality associated with sitting. But the bad news is that sitting down too long is still an issue and so is standing all day because you can do damage to your circulatory system and muscles thanks to nature really not adapting us to being immobilized in an office for much of the day.

What the researchers of the study note is that too much media coverage of the issue has been about sitting vs. standing instead of inactivity vs. being active. Their subjects were a fairly active group of office workers in London who easily got in a few hours worth of activity per day and all that walking around and hitting the gym drastically helped lessen the damage of sitting for long stretches of time. In fact, the authors basically credit the city’s walkability and public transport in maintaining their cohort’s overall lack of suffering from conditions found in sedentary workers in previous studies. Therefore, they suggest, public policies aimed at making people healthier are being myopic when they advocate simply standing up at work as a panacea. It makes sense to focus on work because that’s when most white-collar workers are immobile by necessity for as much as 50 hours a week. But if employers aren’t willing to arrange for more moving around at work, cities can step in to encourage more walking, and undo much of the daily damage.

And that’s really the point here. Modern office jobs are so centered on being chained to a desk, in front of a computer that it’s very difficult to get people more active at work. Even if they stand up for long stretches of time, they’re still not moving much and aren’t gaining a lot of benefit for all their padded mats and ergonomic setups. When they’ll then get into cars to drive home, with every destination afterwards requiring driving, we’re taking an already problematic situation and making it a lot worse. It’s the key reason why Americans suffer from obesity to such a degree; a lot of time spent in the office is followed by navigating cities designed for cars, not people, and a total lack of portion control thanks to cheap, plentiful food, a third of which still ends up going to waste. Whether they stand or sit all day at work isn’t nearly as important as whether they could get some activity into their lives, even if they do visit a gym on a regular basis. So go ahead, sit down or stand up, whatever feels best. Just remember that you also need to do more than just stare at the screen once you do if really want to extend your life, instead of just hoping to.


When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

statistical analysis

As on every other day that ends in “y,” every plausible, implausible, and grasping-at-straws-to-keep-it-alive association between vaccines and autism was ruled out by a mountain rage worth of studies. But for anti-vaxxers, like for any ideological movement, not finding proof of their core belief only means that no one is looking hard enough because if scientists and doctors who did those studies weren’t all on the take from Big Pharma or the alien lizards who secretly ruled our world for thousands of years, they would’ve found that vaccines are nothing but a soup of brain melting toxins. And so, with that general approach in mind, an anti-vaccine group funded a very thorough study of vaccine schedules on macaques which looked for any difference in the brains of vaccinated and non-vaccinated monkeys. Every hypothesis they had was thrown in, from the different vaccination schedules, to thimerosal-containing shots, and any the brain tissues of the test subjects was going to be examined for even the slightest sign of possible abnormalities.

After observing the behaviors of all the monkeys as they grew, learned new skills, and studying the brains of some 36 of those with the most extreme vaccination application differences, there was absolutely no trace of anything abnormal in their neurons. None. Zip. Zilch. Which, if you’re paying attention to the science, is exactly what you’d expect unless the blood-brain barrier in all complex organisms simply vanished overnight. The only difference between a vaccinated and a non-vaccinated child is the likelihood of catching some diseases because we’re now pretty sure that the key causes of autism are genetic and affect the development of inhibitory neurons, not trace amounts of chemicals that yuppies who refuse to understand the concept of dosage think are toxic because some greedy, scientifically illiterate internet cranks told them so. There have been cases where vaccines had medically significant adverse effects but those cases are quite literally fewer than one in a million, and they have nothing to do with mental development.

But if you think that SafeMinds, the anti-vaccine think tank that funded this study is going to just shrug and accept it, you would be wrong. Instead, it’s adamantly claiming that it was mislead by reports from the team and accusing the researchers of cherry-picking their data, demanding to do its own statistical analysis on the findings. In other words, they didn’t get the study they really wanted and are now trying to save face by accusing the scientists of doing what they wanted to do in the first place: fake it ’till they make it and cherry-pick the data until they got the result they paid for. Far too many autism biomed cranks and quacks are depending on them being right to keep bilking parents to turn their kids into guinea pigs, and far too many parents are convinced that whatever is wrong with their child was caused by vaccines, SafeMinds and groups like it go to any lengths to keep the manufactroversy going. It must be the vaccines, it cannot not be the vaccines, they’ve invested too much time, money, and emotion for it not to be the vaccines. To them, this study is already “discredited” because wouldn’t give them what they needed.

little smartphone

Every few years, we seem to get paroxysms of warnings about how our smartphones are going to give us cancer one day. Despite being grounded in junk science, they cause a stir because a few people with the right credentials claiming that something they we every day is killing us is a good way to get a lot of attention very quickly. And with large contingents of people all too ready and willing to believe that a few cells in a lab are a good proxy for the human body, and that Big TelCo is just the next Big Tobacco in waiting, the City of Berkley accomplished a feat of quixotic justice that San Francisco and the state of Maine once failed to secure, and is trying to force all stores that sell phones within the city’s limits to carry a vague, scary warning about cell phones emitting radiation and implying that users may be at risk of something malignant if they don’t go through their phone’s manual to find a safe way to use it while shielding their fragile bodies. No scientific work dealing with in vivo studies says this, but hey, there’s pandering to be done so a little something like, say, the medical community disagreeing with you should’t get in the way.

Really, it’s not often that siding with a large industry trade group, such as CTIA, which fought in court to stop the mandate, is the scientifically correct thing to do. Usually trade groups will jump on a junk science bandwagon if it benefits them in a heartbeat and twist facts to suit the desires for higher profit, as in the case of the anti-GMO lobby for example. But in this rare case, CITA’s objections really did have the science on their side and it would’ve been a way more interesting case if science was actually invoked. Despite having the ability to prove that the City of Berkley was simply ascribing to Luddism and anti-scientific fallacies to cast cell phones as evil, cancer-emitting boxes of death, the modern equivalents to a pack of cigarettes in the 1950s, it decided to argue that the mandate just violated their members’ free speech rights. Please join me for a minute of facepalming at this legal equivalent of snatching a defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s yet another example why court decisions should be inadmissible in debates about science.

But hold on, you might say, what’s so bad about the City of Berkley only giving its citizens what they wanted? After all, shouldn’t people be free to make their own informed decisions and this disclaimer only gives them the tools to make up their minds after considering both sides? Well, yes, that would be the case in a scientifically hyperliterate utopia, or when there’s a real debate about an issue in the scientific community. But there’s a reason why we don’t slap labels on the astronomy books sold at Barnes and Noble warning readers that it contains descriptions of the theory of heliocentrism and features multiple references to the Big Bang, or on a medical book to warn readers that it does not consider the theory of the four humors and miasmas alongside germ theory. There are no current scientific debates about whether the universe is static, or the Earth orbits the sun, or that microorganisms invading our bodies are the origin of disease. Why would we want to give the public erroneous information because a special interest group really, really wanted to shout its ill-informed ideas no matter what the experts actually told them?

Make no mistake, this is not about a really lefty anti-establishment city defying corporate villains in court as a victory for the little guy, as the Luddite lobby spins it. It’s not about helping a public at risk make up its own mind on a case by case basis. This is about promoting misinformation a small but vocal group of technophobes believes to be true in order to similarly scare others and using the city to do the dirty legal work. This time they managed to get lucky because the trade group defending the science abdicated its responsibility to wander off into the tenuous lands of free speech where factual standards are non-existent unless you’re lying to damage careers or imply that someone innocent committed a crime while obviously knowing he or she didn’t. All of the labeling and warning the anti-science activists really want aren’t giving people some sort of valuable information they desperately need, but about putting their propaganda right in front of their faces through court-assisted arm twisting, which is why we shouldn’t so much be laughing and joking about them, but actively pointing out what they are and publicly opposing them.

[ illustration by Eric Motang ]


When you’re in business for yourself, or are a part owner of a venture, nothing sounds sweeter than being told that your business is profitable. What you don’t want to hear is that your artificial manipulation of supply for short term gain is actually profiteering, because people who relied on your product get angry. And if you’re a small pharmaceutical company, you wouldn’t like it when those people get angry. This is currently the case with Turin Pharmaceuticals, which owns what was once an accessible treatment for a dangerous parasitic infection in developing nations. Not content with selling it for a mere $13.50 per pill, its new owner, a hedge fund manager who has been investigated for campaigning the FDA to stymie companies whose stocks he was shorting, and fired from another drug maker for borderline embezzlement, jacked the price up by 5,500% to an absurd $750 per pill. Bizarrely though, reports from the field say that he’s not getting that kind of money and is delivering a lot of doses at no charge and at close to original prices.

But he’s not the only one that’s trying to profiteer from relatively rarely used drugs. Other small pharma companies like Rodelis, Valeant, and CorePharma have drastically increased prices for their old, but in demand medications. It’s become an entirely new business model. Instead of a new treatment superior to older drugs, their companies are being bought, prices for medication long paid off and covered by insurance plans are being doubled, tripled, and more, and when a reporter, customer, or a government agency asks why the sudden rate hike, they’re told it’s for funding R&D without anything in the pipeline to show as benefiting form the new cash. Yes, the process of making a new drug is very complex and expensive, which is why many companies in need of a steady pipeline of them to survive will do all sorts of unethical and questionable things to get them approved and sold; testing against placebos rather than a current standard, paying for fake journal articles, and even promoting off label uses for them, even though it’s illegal. But at least for all their glaring flaws in generating sales, these companies do have new drugs.

We should encourage competition among businesses to develop new ideas in medical care, it’s better for us as both customers and patients when we have choices and companies have really strong incentives to innovate. But the key word here is innovation, and just jacking up the prices of old drugs to bring in more cash is not innovating in any other way than sarcastically when we try to inject a little gallows humor into the conversation. And this isn’t even a good strategy. The PR is awful and the companies either look like Dickensian villains, or cave and ship the drugs to where they’re needed free of charge or for the typical rate. Competitors can easily undercut the newly overpriced drugs with something generic or better. Doctors balk and either negotiate new discounts to knock the price back down to what it was, or refuse to buy and go to competitors to make sure the treatment is covered. On top of that, with no new drugs and existing ones sold at the same price or given away to the needy, investors don’t get their money’s worth anyway. It’s just another example of how trying to hold medicine hostage in an advanced economy with very string regulations is a game one can’t win. And for their own good, really shouldn’t want to…

human heart

When it comes to preserving donated organs for transplantation, the last several decades gave doctors only one choice to keep them alive long enough to be useful. Chilled and transported to the recipients as quickly as possible to avoid spoilage. But a new generation of technology built with a much better understanding of organ structure and function is giving us a new option. Say goodbye to coolers and hello to sterile biospheres where organs are kept warm, fed, and with a private circulatory system until they’re ready to be transplanted. All of the surgeries done using warm, functioning organs have been a successes thus far, and the companies who make these organ-preserving devices are already eyeing improvements in sustaining organs using nutrient and temperature settings the donor organs need for their unique conditions, sizes, and shapes, instead of a general treatment for their organ type. Think of it as the donated organ getting first class transportation to its new home. But that’s making some people feel a bit uneasy…

According to reactions covered by MIT’s Technology Review, and repeated elsewhere, organs being restored to full function may be blurring the line between life and death, and not waiting a proper period of time means that instead of donating organs of a deceased patient, doctors are actually killing someone by harvesting his or her organs so others can live. In some respect, we do expect that sort of triage in hospital settings because after all, there’s only so much even the best medical techniques and devices can do to help patients and if doctors know that all efforts will be in vain, it only makes sense to save time, money, and resources, and give others a shot with the organs they need, something always in short supply. Wait too long to harvest the heart, liver, and kidneys, and they’ll start to die putting the would-be recipient at risk of life-threatening complications or outright transplant failure. However, if you don’t wait long enough, are you just helping death do its job and killing a doomed patient while her family watches? The fuzzier and fuzzier lines between life and death make this a very complicated legal and ethical matter.

But even considering this complex matter, the objections against refined organ harvesting miss something very important. Doctors are not taking patients who can make a full recovery into the operating room, extracting vital organs, putting them in these bio-domes, and sending them out to people in need of a transplant. These organs come from those who are dead or would die as soon as the life support systems are shut off with no possibility of recovery. Revive hearts which stopped after a patient died of circulatory disease and the patient will die again. Support organs inside the body of someone who is brain dead, or so severely brain damaged that recovery just can’t happen, and all you’re doing is extending the inevitable. It takes a lot more than a beating heart or working liver to actually live and these new preservation devices are not giving doctors an incentive to let someone die, much less speed up a patient’s death. They’re giving us a very necessary bridge towards the artificial or stem-cell grown organs we are still trying to create as thousands die of organ failure we can fix if only we could get them the organs they need…

flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…

blood bag

Generally, when skeptics or popular science writers talk about medicine and money, it’s to ward off something one could call an argument ad-shillium, or rejecting scientific studies outright with declarations that anyone who sticks up for doctors and pharmaceutical companies over the hot and trendy snake oil salesperson of the month must be a paid shill. Shilling certainly happens in both the real world and online, but when one’s argument rests in basic science, money is not a topic relevant to the conversation. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important when new ideas come along and gain some serious traction. Case in point, Theranos, a company which a lot of people rightly suspect can shake up healthcare in the United States by offering dozens of blood using just a drop of blood at your corner pharmacy, is facing a barrage of questions as to how exactly its tests work and seems to be unwilling to tell anyone about their lab on a chip.

Ordinarily, this is where an experienced skeptic would look for signs of quackery. Useless tests, pseudoscientifc mumbo-jumbo on the website, avoidance of the FDA, and special pleading for the enigmatic technology which offers vague benefits that don’t run afoul of the agency’s rules for the same of pharmaceuticals and medical devices. But that’s not the case with Theranos. In fact, the company recently got a nod from the FDA to continue its work and is seeking approval of its technology and testing methods, and scientists who have tried to parse how it can test for so many things with so little blood say that it’s more than likely upgrading old technology into a new, compact toolkit. There’s no voodoo or snake oil here, just good old fashioned science and faster, better computers and machinery. Furthermore, the fees for each test are posted openly, and they’re a lot less than what’s offered by its competitors, whose pricing is opaque at best.

So if there’s nothing amiss at Theranos, why all the secrecy? Well, after many millions spent on research, development, and testing, the company wants to expand significantly and if it shares how it does what it does with the world, especially if it’s just an overhaul of existing methodology with better machinery, its competitors can quickly catch up and limit its growth. I’m sure it’s also trying to avoid getting patent trolled and bogged down in expensive litigation, more than likely of the frivolous, made to line lawyers’ pockets variety, since there’s no shortage of people with an abandoned medical testing device patent from which a troll can manufacture an infringement or two and file in East Texas. Perhaps this is unfair to scientists, and to some degree patients who may want a second opinion after Theranos’ tests show something alarming, but this is the result of setting up a healthcare system with opaque pricing and strict regulation, and legal minefields in the technology world through easy to obtain and vaguely worded frivolous patents.