Archives For health

It doesn’t matter how fit or young or healthy you are, when you get a bad case of food poisoning, you will quite clearly be reminded of the fact that you’re a mere mortal. And then the hospital bill will remind you that getting sick in the United States is a rather expensive affair. Back in January of this year, a tainted pizza picked a fight with my stomach and until I got to the emergency room, it was winning. After a shot of something to stop what were the most immediate and painful symptoms, and two quick blood tests, I was sent home to recover for a few days. So how much did three hours at a hospital, one of which was spent waiting for treatment, cost? Just a little over $4,000 with the hospital charging about $3,000 of it and the doctor asking for the remainder. Lucky me though, I can buy insurance so I’m only on the hook for… oh, $2,000 because that’s my deductible. I could try and get better insurance, but even for a healthy non-smoker under 30, a $1,000 deductible is the smallest you’re likely to get and it will cost as much as it would to lease a new economy car. But remember, we’re lucky to have the medical system that we do, otherwise, we’d have to ensure socialistic rationing nightmares.

Certainly, paying between $2,000 and $4,000 for an emergency room visit is worth it not have any government agencies involved in deciding what care you should receive. The decision will be made by a case manager at an insurance company who will determine what care to authorize based on your plan, and if your doctor dares to prescribe a pill that’s too expensive for their tastes, they’ll simply refuse to cover it for you. And certainly, it is their right as private parties not to cover you, and we certainly couldn’t expect the public to pick up the tab for random freeloaders who think they have the right to get sick and expect medical care. If they don’t want to have medical debt or need treatment, they shouldn’t get sick in the first place because you can prevent getting sick from anything as long as you really put your mind to it, right? So say a college student living mostly on loans is driven to the ER with food poisoning after eating something shady to save a few bucks on food and winds up with a $4,000 medical bill. Can we, with a straight face, insist that this is fair to everyone involved? Do we just say that the student can sue whoever sold her the food that sent her to the hospital and that some very basic, straightforward treatment should really cost thousands and thousands of dollars?

Suing the place that sold the questionable food is an expensive and lengthy ordeal that’s hardly guaranteed to work out in the end, and the health inspector is likely to only give the establishment a slap on the wrist unless there’s a huge flood of lawsuits coming their way and the kitchen is literally crawling with roaches. Meanwhile, the student is looking at incurring medical debts that could stick around for years unless she’s under a terrific plan through her parents. Sure there’s a maze of forms from charities and government funds that she may try to navigate to get more of her care covered but they take a healthcare professional to fill out properly and to be frank, having someone jump through so many hoops for what should be a very simple and inexpensive round of treatment is ridiculous. The healthcare system in the United States can only be described as dysfunctional because it’s guided by conflicting principles, confusing regulations, and its pricing and cost structures are the definition of absurdity. On the one hand, we say that we need to help those who are sick since many of those who are, didn’t decide that today would be a perfect day to get into a traffic accident, or be diagnosed with life- threatening illnesses, or even have food poisoning. And yet, we’re constantly afraid of "freeloaders" who dare to expect the hospital’s resources to be used to help them when they get sick and have no insurance.

And the confusion goes even deeper. We get riled up at the idea of governments deciding who gets care and who doesn’t, but seem perfectly fine with insurance companies who try to make a profit by not covering care in the role of the "Death Panels," a role they’ve occupied for years. Why? Because it’s less direct? Because it’s a more digestible idea we can hinge on money rather than think about its ethics? And why does basic care cost so much? We know that waste is a big part of the problem as are fraud and litigation, but between all of those things combined, we still have more than a trillion dollars worth of medical care left unexplained. Even the fact that Americans have been eating themselves to death for the past two decades and the same punditry that preaches personal responsibility in healthcare grabs their torches and pitchforks when someone suggests a few more salads to the 66% of the country that needs to lose weight to live a longer life, doesn’t account for all of it. And this is the real problem with every major healthcare bill considered since the 1990s. Instead of trying to sort out our philosophical contradictions and to get to the bottom of why medical care is so expensive in the United States, it offers little more than overcomplicated band aids. As healthcare costs grow, politicians either twiddle their thumbs or regurgitate stale, predictable talking points. But hey, they get medical care paid by our taxes. Why should they care about this? It’s not like they’ll have to pay $2,000 after eating a bad pizza.

We’re not talking about healthcare being free of course, that’s impossible because someone will always have to pay the doctors and cover the cost of operating the hospital and its equipment. But at the same time, what a libertarian would describe as a "free market solution" doesn’t apply here because when you need emergency medical help, you don’t have time to shop around to find the right hospital. I know of no one who makes totally rational, logical decisions when he or she is really sick and even if he or she did, emergency room visits tend to be equally expensive wherever you go. Likewise, it seems crudely selfish to declare that anyone not happy with the runaway costs of healthcare in the U.S. is a freeloading socialist whiner who expects to be taken care of by everyone else. The issue is not black and white, and no "illegals and welfare queens" is not the answer to every question about the cost of medical care out there. And until we can actually put all the facts and all the options on the table, and consider them without radical partisan insipidity, we’ll have a healthcare system that functions despite its best efforts to collapse under its own weight, trudging onwards with no guidance and an impassioned, tangled mess of contradictory principles instead of a standard or goal.

[ illustration by Denis Zilber ]

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wired cyborg girl

If you think we’re in data overload now, just wait until the numbers of so-called wired patients swells. A profile of one such patient appears in MIT Technology Review, and foretells of a future in which patients track over a few thousand biomarkers to identify the onset of chronic diseases, have their genomes scanned in, out, back and forward again, then sideways and inside out, and everything about them is being constantly tested. Now, from the side it would certainly seem like this constant prodding and measuring would seem like hell and the patients who’ll want to sign up for something like this will be hypochondriacs. But would that really be case? If you want to be a wired, hyper-analyzed patient today, you have to be extremely proactive, have roughly $50,000 or more per year to cover the costs of testing, and supervise the tests yourself. In the future, things could work quite differently and various nano sensors working their way around your bloodstream until being flushed out by the body to make room for another wave, would silently collect your vitals and only alert you if where’s a real emergency or if something’s really off. This sort of passive scanning wouldn’t require dedication to a battery of tests and instead, give the patients peace of mind. If something’s actually wrong, they’ll know it quickly.

Usually the faster you catch an illness, the faster it can be treated and the greater your chances of beating the disease, especially when it comes to potentially terminal but difficult to detect conditions like certain cancers. Having a little nanobot army patrolling your body for disease and keeping track of how things are working has the potential to detect these dangerous conditions before they start doing real harm and guide doctors’ future smart medications to newly arisen tumors for biopsies and treatment. Keeping track of such things as weight and cholesterol could allow the patients to take better care of themselves too, knowing when they can afford a caloric splurge and when they better moderate their diet habits for the sake of their hearts and waistlines. The hoped for result? Patients living longer, healthier, fuller lives, doctors who know what’s going on with patients so they can make more accurate diagnoses and recommend more effective treatments, and yes, savings for health insurance companies and their customers by reducing the number of claims generated by conditions that have become chronic and require constant medical care and supervision. Of course the testing would be an ongoing expense but it would be a lot cheaper to cover ongoing personal tests than decades of claims for those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and other chronic maladies.

Hold on a second though, doctors would say, over-testing is not a panacea. How much good will we do many patients by keeping them anxious and doing test after test on them? After all, when you really set out to find an anomaly in the human body, biology won’t disappoint. How much time and money should a patient invest in a potentially dead end, examining and reexamining something harmless? All of this is certainly true, but doctor- driven objections to wired patients aren’t so much objections to the testing itself as much as they are a strong argument for guided measurements by automatic systems certified to keep track of a patient’s vitals without a constant necessity to perform test after test after test at a doctor’s office, silently analyzing biomarkers unless very real concerns emerge. You don’t think of your firewall and antivirus every time you use your computer and unless there’s a virus actively trying to infect your computer or some piece of malware trying to broadcast what its found on your hard drive through the web, you wouldn’t want it in the way. But would you really want to turn it off completely with the idea that the more you scan your computer and find cryptically named files, processes, and filders you can’t readily identify, the more paranoid you’ll become that your machine has been infected so you’ll spend a lot of money buying more and more tools to scan and re-scan harmless data?

Again, the goal here is balance and automation. Those utterly paranoid about their health will always exist, as will those who’ll misinterpret an elevated or low, but still perfectly safe, level of whatever in their blood or stool or urine. Nothing can be done about them. But the vast majority of people who should be wired with a swarm of medical nanobots in the future would be more than content with simply knowing that should any dangerous disease or condition start rearing its ugly head, they’ll be alerted and sent to the doctor promptly, with a much higher chance of being effectively treated and cured. Who wouldn’t want to be told when his or her behavior is trending into health-endangering territory? Obviously we can’t make acting on the information compulsory but we have to at least inform the patients, and sometimes, just a little information would make all the difference and just a few tests carried out in time can save someone. If technologies on the horizon will let us to improve and save millions of lives, why dismiss them as burdensome and excessive just because there will be some hypochondriacs who’ll will get carried away with them in their search for an illness they’re sure plagues them, as if they don’t get carried away with anything today? If we want to improve medical care and lower the cost of healthcare, we need to enable wired patients and get systems that will help them stay healthy to market.

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Quick, how do you tell if someone is alive? Either check for a pulse or if the person is still breathing. But there seems to be a very, very serious possibility that checking one’s pulse wouldn’t tell you anything because a lot of perfectly normal and seemingly healthy humans will walk around without a heartbeat thanks to an artificial heart which does away with a pulse, reduces wear and tear to a bear minimum, and was designed not as an experimental, last resort bridge to an organ transplant, but as a substitute for one. By sheer accident, a duo of doctors discovered that a well-tested and long proven heart assist device could take on the job of a heart in a few extreme cases and set off to create a mechanical vital organ in which function overtakes natural form. The video below is a terrific introduction to the concept, but be warned that it features pretty graphic surgery and is definitely not for the squeamish, the faint of heart, or those whose knees get wobbly at the sight of blood…

Also, make sure to read the Pop Sci feature story on the subject which gives an even more detailed account of the doctors behind the research and the questions they had to answer along the way. One of the important things to note is that their idea may not seem all that extreme or groundbreaking when we get into the details, just a combination of devices that have been used for decades with great success. But what makes it such a major accomplishment is that no one seemed to have thought of creating a no-beat artificial heart because of the laser-like focus on the fact that our own heart beats and therefore, that beat must be important to the body at large. In reality, the heart seems to beat only to take in the nutrients it needs to keep beating and as long as there’s a steady flow of blood to the rest of the organs, we’re no worse off for it. And that’s what a breakthrough is really all about. Realizing that we can try something seemingly too simple to work just to see what happens and find that the conventional wisdom is wrong via the scientific method. Even more importantly, this story is a great example of how failure can be beneficial as the failure to treat two patients lead to an artificial organ that could save millions of people suffering from organ failure or those who would otherwise die in the OR.

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It seems the power players working for the New World Order are at it again. Apparently, when not indulging in sex slaves trapped in the dungeons of their secret mansions, they’ve been plotting our demise through the use of vaccines and getting Bill Gates to invest the billions he dedicated to charity to vaccinating children in a number of developing countries. How does vaccination contribute to our demise? As we were warned by one of the world’s most popular conspiracy theorists, turned into a political scientist by the Kremlin, the Reptoid menace behind the Illuminati made vaccines to cull the human population by disrupting the body’s natural balances with toxic synthetic chemicals. Since they’ve been really slacking in the secrecy department lately, posting their global domineering agendas online for all to read, they’ve neglected to tell Gates not to breathe a word about the whole lowering human population thing and he did let it fly that the number of humans might fall by as much as 15% if healthcare and vaccination programs in developing nations are deployed effectively and fully funded. Can’t you just feel the chills running down your spine, especially if you know that the world’s poorest inhabitants are being delivered a slew of vaccines, antibiotics, and mobile clinics at this minute?

While many demographers used to fret about our population exploding to more than 10 billion by 2050 or so, they’re now more worried about a rapidly declining population, especially in wealthy nations since the youth in these countries is usually below what’s known as replacement levels. In no small part, the soaring gains in our numbers on Earth have been due to drastically increased life spans with the advent of modern medicine, vaccinations, geriatric care, and modern, post-industrial cultural and economic shifts. We no longer need big families to be self-contained labor forces on sprawling farms because very few of us still work on farms, and thanks to much better medical care and antibiotics, lethal diseases and injuries of the past are now treatable with as little as a round of medication. Developing nations still have economies in which many families either have to rely on farming to survive, or do daily odd jobs in which more family members working means bigger incomes and more food for the day. Couple that with the lack of affordable modern medicine and you have an eerily similar situation to developing nations as little as 150 years ago. As these nations get up to speed with modern industry and medical care, they’re also very likely to find that their families will have to change.

Essentially, the longer we live in the modern world, the later and the fewer children we’ll tend to have because they’re more expensive to clothe, feed, and educate, and because we’ll have to spend a lot more time getting up to financial and cultural speed to have them. As a good deal of research suggests, women empowered to use birth control and break long outdated traditions will tend to delay childbirth to better establish themselves and peruse other goals. Of course this doesn’t mean that they don’t like being mothers, but many do not want motherhood to be the only thing they’ll ever get to do in life. When they have fewer children later in life, they can provide them with more resources and a good vaccination schedule coupled with readily available treatments for everything from diarrhea to malaria, means that more children will survive to live longer, happier lives. And in this case, the falling population rate is actually a good thing because it comes by natural attrition instead of being the result of a horrific plague. Fewer people may be living in the next 30 to 50 years, but they’ll live far, far longer and healthier lives than they would’ve had at any point in history. But don’t tell that to the conspiracy theorists desperate to see the evil of the Illuminati in everything on the news. According to them, less humans means that the New World Order’s pharmaceutical arm is committing genocide, especially for those sure that vaccines are nothing but pure evil despite not even knowing what vaccines do or how they do it.

Truly the sun never shines in the conspiracy theorist’s world because good news are for sheeple who simply don’t understand the nature of the nefarious forces watching over their every move. Real thinkers, apparently, are those who resign themselves to a mental prison of fear and paranoia in which they battle an omnipotent, immoral enemy who can make them disappear in the middle of the night should he choose to, an enemy very much of their own creation and embodied in every schemer, greedy executive, immoral diplomat, or bumbling troublemaker who doesn’t know what he or she is doing, getting news coverage. Like religious zealots trying desperately to find some divine hidden code in their holy books or rabid political partisans trying to find any bit of dirt on an opposing candidate scouring through public documents in search of scandals or donations from questionable sources, conspiracy theorists try to build elaborate spider webs encompassing everything that’s ever happened and convince themselves that someone, something, or a group of someones or somethings sits at the very nexus of all these events exerting ultimate control. In their power is the ability to set the price for your coffee and determine which countries will go to war with each other and which ones become involved as they wars drag on. And to them, only this kind of world makes any sense whatsoever…

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It seems that more and more people are turning towards the idea that we can indeed see aging as a chronic disease to be treated rather than a predetermined outcome leading to death. Seeing our bodies as more of a biomechanical implement than something sacred, and tackling the fallacies of fatalists who see death as simply too important to give up along with recent advancements in key stem cell therapies that open a brand new method of treating degenerative conditions, are certainly helping the trend. However, the urge not to stray too far into our wildest scientific ambitions remains strong and manifests itself as presentations warning us of runaway Frankenstein projects, and now, an argument which says that to defeat aging, the rich will abuse the poor and disenfranchised to test the treatments that will allow them to live forever. Just like a plot of many science fiction movies trying to teach a lesson about social equality, an article by philosopher Nicholas Agar casts life extension as a deal with the Devil for the poor, who will be paid to die so the wealthy can live.

True, it’s hard to argue with the logic that the wealthy will be able to afford the kind of life extending treatments that the poor will not. It would also be difficult to dispute that even with universal healthcare and life extension mandated to be offered and given to all those who ask, only the citizens of wealthy nations and the wealthy in the developing world will reap the benefits. But considering that Agar is a philosopher who wrote a book that opposes many transhumanist ideas, and whose interest in this topic has little to with the science involved, he plunges into class warfare with very vague and generic statements about the risks involved in techniques for radical life extension justifying the exploitation of the poor by the rich and their doctors. How this can happen if the trials will have to be announced to the public and when there will be plenty of volunteers who want to get in on a possible cure for aging itself is left to the reader to deduce. Agra just wants us to be shocked by the cruel doctors and the vain business tycoons driving them to sacrifice the economically disadvantaged…

I suspect, then, that human guinea pigs for anti-aging trials will come disproportionately from the poor and disempowered. A recent [2011] report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues called for stronger protections for participants in clinical trials. It seeks to block Big Pharma’s old practice of finding jurisdictions less finicky about their subjects’ rights in respect of clinical trials. (For instance, American doctors purposely infected more than 700 Guatemalans with syphilis in the 1940s.) The prospect of a cure for aging will create more powerful desires than did the prospect of a better treatment for syphilis. The rich and powerful will be looking to do away with rules that they perceive as denying them millennial life spans.

Now let’s review. According to Agar, since life extension treatments will be risky, he doesn’t want to be among the first humans to try them and the American government did authorize cruel medical experiments more than half a century ago. Therefore, he puts these two ideas together and gets rich people who want more than one lifetime getting the government to entice the poor and oppressed masses into cruel experiments. To support his argument he lists only one somewhat scientifically controversial claim behind what he says are dire risks involved, and totally forgets about the very likely role of complex robotics in life extension which could save countless patients suffering from nerve or muscle damage as well as give those who are locked in the ability to communicate with the outside world rather than stay trapped in the nightmare of a living death. He’s scared and not willing to contribute to extending human lifespan with his work, or allow science to use his body for a scientifically justifiable life extension technique or two, he justifies his attitude by framing the medical science of the future as a kind of dystopian body farm for the rich. It would be one thing if he warned us that abuses of power can happen in this context and we must be on the lookout for them, but that’s not he does.

He declares that it will happen as surely as the sun will shine and implies that if we do develop technology to live indefinitely or for hundreds of years, we should all be ashamed of ourselves because we will only get this advancement through our cruelty and the corpses of those who don’t make enough to be well off. Not only did he pull this entire line of reasoning out of his lower intestine and wields it like some sort of moral hammer, he is actually trying to shame those who would want to help all humans live longer, and who want to develop the kind of technology that can be used to save lives and improve the world for all those who will inhabit it longer, casting us as overzealous and poorly informed mad scientists either unaware or dismissive of the supposed death toll we’ll leave behind. Meanwhile, he can barely summon a single scientific objection and even then it’s an issue still being debated in detail by biologists and based on his vastly oversimplified reading of one idea by a famous gerontologist presented alongside many others. I suppose this is what happens when one tires of constantly gazing into his navel and decides to explore other cavities for "profound insights."

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Here’s a fact that many, many modern anti-vaccination activists are realizing in droves. The world is filled with chemicals and yes, some of them in the right concentration and at the right frequency are toxic. And according to their fevered logic, because there are chemicals in everything and these chemicals can be toxic, they must be evil, released by malicious, profit-minded monsters who don’t care if you die to make a buck. All the fear- mongering sites they construct and promote under the calls of saving lives from Big Pharma and Big Borther quote mercury, formaldehyde, aluminum, and whatever else makes them or their followers shudder in fright along with the kinds of statistics which show utter and absolute ignorance of how units of measurement and human bodies actually work. God forbid you vaccinate your children, they cry in terror, you may as well inject a vial of toxic waste directly into their veins! To all who’d ascribe to this school of thought, I have a suggestion. If you are terrified of being exposed to anything that can be toxic, just go ahead and check into your nearest and most convenient cemetery right now because the world is always full of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Actually, believe it or not, plain old water can kill you if you drink it too fast. Put enough in your system over very short periods of time and you’ll disturb crucial chemical reactions in your body. Can’t be, right? It’s water! How could one ever possibly claim that water ever killed someone? Well, there was a highly publicized case of an idiotic radio station contest in which contestants had to drink far too much water and the winner died. If we go by anti-vaccination logic, we should swear off anything containing water because people died from drinking it too quickly. But yet, anti-vaccinationists drink plenty of water, thousands of gallons of it over decades and they are still alive. Funny enough, their bodies are also producing formaldehyde, contain uranium, and come into contact with deadly salt, potassium, and carbon dioxide. In fact, the more paranoid devotees of alt med make a hobby of finding out out every single chemical their bodies contain to know what detox remedies to buy, and then are just as surprised to find that their bodies still contain all the evil chemicals they wanted so badly to flush out. And they will continue to have all sorts of potentially nasty chemicals in their bodies for their entire lives, virtually all of them in such a tiny dose that they don’t even matter. Parts per billion or per million in a very large human body which evolved to deal with many of these chemicals are just not a real threat.

Now it’s true that there are dangerous forms of pollution out there from which we do need to protect ourselves because they emit far too many toxic chemicals on a constant basis, but vaccines are not one of them. We are not giving too many of them too soon, and all the trace chemicals so eagerly cited by anti-vaccination activist websites are quickly flushed out of our system. Have you noticed that their appeals to mercury in vaccines will never mention what type of mercury they mean? Have you ever wondered why? Because methyl mercury is a pollutant which tends to stick around and has the nasty habit of causing permanent neurological damage, as ancient cultures trying to use it as an immortality serum found out firsthand, but ethyl mercury, the type that is actually used in trace amounts for one or two vaccines, is flushed out of the body in less than a week. To say that ethyl mercury will kill you from toxic buildup would be a lie, and so would saying that vaccines use methyl mercury. But noting that the type of mercury used in one type of vaccines administered once a year is flushed out of the body in under a week would undermine their vaccines-have-evil-toxins-that-will-kill-you argument so the anti-vaccionationists will just say "mercury" to keep their propaganda superficially believable.

To simply assume that because something can be a poison at very high concentrations is a poison, is simply irrational and casts the entire universe as one, big, poisonous stew, our bodies included. Then again, it’s not surprising that the same people whose every utterance about vaccines is either wrong or totally devoid of any facts or logic would come up with this line of debate. Really, you would be better off consulting the Magic Eight Ball for vaccine advice than those who hinged their very existence on wars with medical experts, and who weave elaborate tales of propaganda and random accusations of conspiracies of medical evil when the simple question of which vaccines they think are safe or how they should be modified comes up. At least that Magic Eight Ball would leave vaccination against diseases which can have life-long complications that could easily shorten your lifespan as an available option and it won’t try to argue with you that polio wasn’t really that big of a deal (just ignore the iron lungs in the museums) or that smallpox, one of the greatest killers of human populations in all of recorded history, was going to go away on its own if we all washed our hands a tad more, nevermind the fact that smallpox was a virus, not a bacterium one could just wash away…

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Over the last few years, there’s been something about a persistent claim by alt med mavens that I can’t really grasp, the claim that pharmaceutical companies will go out of their way to crush cures for whatever ails you to keep you sick and  draining you of cash by selling more and more useless medication. Why does it puzzle me despite being so straightforward? Well, because if it were true, it would imply that either Big Pharma or those who dispense alternative treatments aren’t interested in making money, or avoid making as much as they can despite having all the incentive to earn more, an arrangement which makes no sense from any angle. Simply put, if money being involved in medicine give the seller an incentive to keep a buyer sick, one of our actors will need to become a charity to stay consistent with its stated mission to heal the sick and the other will be stuck saying no to every new innovation promising a cure for a complex and widespread disease or cut costs with a revolutionary new scientific breakthrough, forfeiting the billions to be gained. Something’s definitely off here…

Let’s say that you’re an executive at a pharmaceutical company and you’ve been presented with a proposal to invest in a promising new method of suppressing cancerous tumors, and then recycling this technology for a whole new set of other treatments along the way. Considering that you have to custom-tailor it to the different types of cancers out there, you may be looking at hundreds of targeted drugs coming from one pipeline, and if they use the same delivery mechanism such as siRNA, or specialized nano-particles, you could expedite your required FDA approval based on your prior work and save billions in the process. It takes around $1 billion as well as about a decade of trial and error to go from a new chemical in a Petri dish to a treatment prescribed by doctors as a standard of care. Embracing this new technology would save you billions of dollars, shave years off a complex and very involved process, and bring in tens, if not hundreds, of billions in profits. Are you going to reject this proposal because you believe that once you deliver a cure for a disease, they can never, ever get sick again and that they won’t just give up if your treatments don’t improve their health? A longer life is going to mean more sales in the long run, and more cures mean more patients seeking your help.

On the other side of the argument, let’s pretend that you’re not one of those greedy Big Pharma vampires who live on human misery and childrens’ tears, but a caring, misunderstood genius who has a cure for an illness in some laboratory ran either by you or your friends. If your mission is to heal people, why are you selling cure after cure instead of just giving them away and soliciting donations from private charities? All right, all right, it’s not like manufacturing your nostrums and potions and pills costs you nothing, I understand. But if you’re either a homeopath or follow homeopathic principles, you should be able to use potentization to make your cures for spare change per ton, since you’re somehow unable to sell your technique to a pharmaceutical company that will now only need one plant to supply the entire world, and want to heal the sick a lot more than you care about becoming a billionaire. Or if you use natural remedies, you should be able to tell people where to find a certain leaf or plant and how to make the appropriate mixture or pill themselves, releasing this information for free because you’re better and more noble than those craven pharmaceutical giants, right? You can’t just rake in tens of billions of dollars a year and scream bloody murder when asked to get a license because it may cut into your profit margin! You’re a healer, not an executive focused on the bottom line.

However, we do know that alternative medicine is usually picked after the primary round of conventional drugs either fail to work, are prescribed incorrectly, or don’t meet a patient’s expectations. And we also know that the treatments themselves are not covered by insurance companies, allowing more cash to go directly into an alt med provider’s pocket since they don’t have negotiate their prices down after some serious talks with the likes of a multi-billion dollar giant like Anthem, Humana, or Aetna. We also know they they don’t give away their pills and drinks, and that homeopathic cold and flu remedies will cost you about twice as much as a conventional, off-brand, over-the-counter medication for the same purpose, and they don’t even have to comply by any FDA rules and perform expensive clinical studies showing safety and efficacy. All that would mean that your alt med provider has just as much of an incentive to keep his patients sick as a pharmaceutical executive going by the same logic here. To undermine that argument, we would have to break the rule of casting the sale of a treatment to be an incentive for keeping patients sick, but that would now mean that Big Pharma has no more interest in undermining their patients’ health for profit. Unless of course we apply a double standard for these scenarios and insist that Big Pharma is always evil and alt med is always saintly regardless of logic.

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As I’m sure you know by now, one of the primary symptoms of a crank is an acute inability to take criticism. As in the person in question starts foaming at the mouth with rage when confronted with the idea that he may not necessarily be 100% correct about his profound and revolutionary idea. Now of course not everyone who will shy from criticism is a crank by definition, there are a lot of people who simply take all criticism personally, primarily because they form such profound attachments to their ideas. However, if you hold on to your ideas a little too tightly and start justifying why everyone says you’re wrong as some sort of nefarious conspiracy, you’ll more than likely be in the final stages of your descent into crankhood. And when you’ve found a way to make some cash by selling your pseudoscience, you’re highly prone to lashing out at those who point it out with an infuriated threat of a lawsuit. That’s exactly what a PR flack for the Burzynski Clinic has been doing across the skeptical web after Quackometer’s Andy Lewis wrote about the clinic’s founder’s false promises and greed in the case of a young girl with a brain tumor being charged £200,000 for his supposed cancer treatment.

In response, a marketer, and, apparently, esteemed legal scholar, Marc Stephens, proceeded to carpet-bomb skeptics on his hit list with cease and desist e-mails, each more threatening than the last, and the verbage of which made it easy to imagine the author howling in rage as he quite literally pounded it out on his keyboard, keys flying in every direction. You see, apparently Stephens isn’t just threatening skeptics with lawsuits, but in his rampage, he’s actually exposing a grand conspiracy created by Michael Shermer and involving numerous skeptical bloggers to discredit the dashing researcher Stanislaw Burzynski and his revolutionary therapy for a whole host of cancers once thought incurable. His proof, the one he demanded the bloggers on his hit list to show their audiences, consists of screen caps of tweets and blog posts authored by skeptics. No, that’s it really. If you call yourself a skeptic and wrote something unflattering about the Burzynski Clinic, you’re a part of the conspiracy and therefore, must either shut down your blog or scrub it of anything that doesn’t praise Marc Stephens’ bosses. Don’t bother asking for a list of passages with which the Clinic disagrees. You know what you did you evil, nasty skeptic you, so either shut up or suffer the wrath of Burzynski’s squad.

Stephens could not have been serious about taking this Gordian Knot of accusations to court, could he? Does any judge actually allow a case naming hundreds of not thousands of people as defendants based on such flimsy conspiratorial nonsense? Though the discovery period would be rather fun and all those skeptics may get a chance to explain the flaws of Burzynski’s claims, pointing out that one can follow Stephens’ pretense at logic to draw a similar conclusion about skeptical coverage of alien abductions, psychics, and ghosts. Then, the very same skeptics could turn around and demand that the Burzynski Clinic pays them for their time, legal expenses, and damages for the harassment it inflicted. I mean come on, the Clinic let someone with serious deficiencies in civilized communication electronically bully a blogger still high school, attaching Google Maps snapshots of his home in his e-mails. This is beyond a cease and desist. This was outright harassment and intimidation, and Stephens, acting like a character from the Godfather movies told his targets that they got real nice homes and families and it would be a shame if anything were to happen to them. If I were Rhys Morgan, this e-mail would be forwarded to my neighborhood police department for safekeeping.

Now, after nearly a week of Stephens’ nastiness, the Clinic’s already shaky web reputation has plummeted in just about every way possible. Trust sites now rank them as a scam, search results are being filled with blog posts explaining why to steer clear of them and stories of their intimidation, and they know full well that a lot of medical bloggers are either working on, or are now posting detailed scientific explanations of why Burzynski’s version of chemotherapy fails to work, and how he can claim to keep doing trials while really using them as a smokescreen to either administer chemotherapy, or do his own personal research while charging patients a ridiculous amount of money for it. Keep in mind that not a dollar of his fees could be covered by the patients’ health insurance policy because the treatment is still considered to be experimental, making this a very, very profitable endeavor. Were he to simply sell chemo treatments and accept his clients’ insurance, he’d have to negotiate his outrageous prices with insurance companies which would quickly drive them back down to terra firma. So with the damage still ongoing, Burzynski’s staff did the only partially sensible thing they could in this situation and sent out e-mails and a press release saying that they’ve fired Stephens.

But of course, the bloggers who made his hit list are still on the hook, they said, especially bloggers in the UK where suing for libel is a breeze. In other words, Stephens was apparently following Burzynski’s policy when he tried to threaten bloggers who were critical of his boss into submission. It’s just that he went overboard in his campaign and had quickly become a liability. At the end of the day, Burzynski and his staff are still snake oil salespeople, their products still don’t show any real potential to fight cancer according to the FDA, the NIH, and just about every other major group of medical professionals, and his "clinical trials" have gone on so long and include so much sketchy data, they qualify as clinical trials only by the vocabulary definition. The end goal of a clinical trial should be to test the efficacy and safety of a new treatment, then get it to market quickly, not have eleven of them rotating for years on end while charging participants $7,000 to $15,000 for the first round, then bilk them for an additional $4,500 to $6,000 every month for up to a year. That, my friends, is not a clinical trial, but a very profitable racket, one to steer clear of if you or someone you know has the awful misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer. Any cancer has to be treated promptly and aggressively, and time lost to questionable and unethical experimentation could turn out to be life lost in the worst case scenario.

[ illustration by Andrew Steven Foltz ]

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Sometimes I can only sympathize with the kind of frustrating setbacks experienced by biologists. Whereas an entire area of STEM disciplines can rely on formulas and basic theory to get them at least close to where they need to be, biology seems to change its mind on a dime, and what seem like very straightforward and simple ideas can end up grinding to a screeching halt when scaled up beyond a few cells. From promising research into greatly increasing lifespan to countless potential cancer therapies, some of the failed efforts by biologists make me wonder if working in the discipline ever feels like battling Murphy’s Law. The reason I say this has to do with a just published study citing a failure to implant reprogrammed stem cells from an organism’s own body, thereby protecting them from becoming a target for the subject’s immune system as they try to repair the targeted tissues and organs. It turns out that activating the signals that encourage stem cells to develop new structures sets off the immune response and the seemingly friendly cells are now seen as pathogenic.

Whoops. The problem, it seems, lies with two genes, Zg16 and Hormad1. During a period in which a fetus is developing the distinction between its own tissues and that of foreign entities, these genes may be turned off while in the reprogrammed stem cells they’re active. As the stem cells try to grow into new shapes, the body’s defenses see these cells as intruders because they’re trying to differentiate and form structures when internal chemistry has turned off this kind of radical development. Forget about being able to internally grow new arms and legs; the cell cultures trying to diversify into them will be annihilated by your immune system. While there’s data to suggest that your stem cells could conceivably be used to grow a new, mature heart or a lung or a liver and implanted back in with minimal fears of a rejection, using your own body’s processes to help out wouldn’t work and the technology needed to make it would have to be that much more complex than it is now. Now, it’s not that this finding completely eliminates the foundation for the key ideas behind regenerative medicine. This setback just tells scientists that there’s much more we need to know to make the process work and warns of the potential for more complications and problems down the road. Biology is just finicky like that.

This is partially why my last take on life extension and radical medicine focused on machinery rather than a biological answer. Every individual is somewhat unique and after billions of years of evolution, we have living things so bizarrely and intricately messy that changing something within them is fiendishly complex. Machine parts are mass produced and can be customized to work around and with biological limitations. We can use them to help build new organs and provide scaffolding and structure for developing stem cells, and one day, maybe even build new organs from bio-compatible materials that won’t be actively attacked by T cells, or with several mutations down the line develop tumors. So when something breaks and wears down, we can throw in new organs and joints to whatever extent biology will let us. But our cells are certainly not just plug-and-play as some popular science journals and overly eager scientists hoped, and we need to make sure that we are as thorough as possible with new clinical ideas and don’t take our conclusions as automatically correct, even if they simply build on the fundamentals of existing theories. And this experiment is just a reminder that we do not know nearly as much as we sometimes tend to think and have a very long time before we can really wield our knowledge of biology’s building blocks to do truly amazing things with our bodies from the bottom up.

Zhao, T., et al. (2011). Immunogenicity of induced pluripotent stem cells Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature10135

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If you got the reference in the title, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. Just like Fry and Bender, you’re about to take a brief trip into the mind of a machine driven insane by its handlers to simulate schizophrenia, a more or less umbrella diagnosis for a number of breakdowns in mental processes. In this case, an artificial neural network known as DISCERN built for Yale’s Department of Psychiatry, was compromised to increase the amount of erroneous recalls until its ability to recognize narratives in which it was supposed to be the key player from impersonal stories about others broke down and it began suffering from delusions seen in many patients diagnosed as schizophrenic. Viewed in the light of this experiment, delusions seem to be the results of malformed long-term memory rather then some sort of cross-wiring, validating the idea that memories that aren’t processed or refined thoroughly enough by the brain best fit the symptoms seen in schizophrenics. But here’s the big underlying question in all this. Just how good are machines at simulating human memory? Do our brains also perform some sort of backpropagation, or did this experiment just register a false positive?

You see, artificial neural networks, or ANNs for brevity, learn by essentially guessing what the right answer to the problems they are trained to solve should be through a backpropagation algorithm. In simplest terms, this backpropagation is a programmatic attempt to reduce the errors the ANN makes. The deviations across all of its layers are averaged together and the network itself is told to adjust its answers in a way that (hopefully) will narrow down the range for an accurate result. In the strictest definition, it’s learning because those thousands of applications of the squashing function will eventually narrow down its guesses to an acceptable range, but if you’re really nitpicky, it’s guided guessing. This is why it took DISCERN between 5,000 and 30,000 cycles to learn a short story and be able to recall it on cue. However, the human brain works rather differently. We don’t need to run one event through our head thousands of times while some helpful voice tries to correct us when we get some detail wrong. Current thinking says that we re-run memories in our sleep as we commit them to long term memory and whatever errors we make, we keep unless another person corrects us after we recite a flawed version of the events in question aloud. ANN-style backpropagation doesn’t seem to exist for us.

Still, that said, the closest way to simulate the errors in memorizing and recall seen in schizophrenic patients was to throw a wrench into how the layers in DISCERN governed backpropagation, and the researchers had some very promising results. Messing with the machine’s learning routine was better than seven other types of adjustments meant to induce schizophrenic symptoms within the ANN and the errors it made came off as very reminiscent of what we’d call delusions because, as noted previously, without accurate track records for the subjects of a narrative and the inability to tell who was doing what, impersonal, third-party accounts soon became personal recollections and vice versa. Seems like a pretty clear explanation of what may be going on in a brain with an excess of dopamine, thought to interfere with working memory. Maybe this could even show why schizophrenic patients sometimes seem to make little sense when trying to convey something. They may be having a hard time recalling the right words or the result of building a wrong set of relationships between those words. The patients think they’re communicating quite clearly when to us, what they say makes little to no sense. At the same time, is this the result of an interference in a process like backpropagation in a human mind, or is DISCERN’s backpropagation a surrogate for a currently poorly understood process?

The problem is that if we begin assuming that the inner mechanisms of memory formation work like ANNs at the neuron to neuron level, we could be barking up the wrong tree. While the researchers highlight that more clinical validation is needed for their results, as would certainly be expected of them, they also propose that a machine like DISCERN could be used to test potential treatments for schizophrenia. Considering that they’ve broken the backpropagation algorithm and know how to fine-tune it again to make sure that the ANN is again able to recall stories correctly, their computer seems like a poor candidate to test methods of altering brain chemistry. We know how to fix a delusional machine. Helping a delusional human is a far more complicated task, one that can’t be simulated on a computer unless we know the details of the complex interplay between all the chemical reactions that should take place in a typical, average brain…

See: Hoffman, R., Grasemann, U., Gueorguieva, R., Quinlan, D., Lane, D., and Miikkulainen, R. (2011). Using Computational Patients to Evaluate Illness Mechanisms in Schizophrenia Biological Psychiatry, 69 (10), 997- 1005 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.036

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