Clairvoyants agree on missing man

Clairvoyants agree on missing man

By CORINNE AMBLER Police Reporter

Police will join friends of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly today in a search of an area where clairvoyants think he might be found.

Three clairvoyants independently said Mr Kelly was in the same area of greater Wellington, and friends had been searching there, close friend George Allan said.

Ms Allan said she had been dealing with a Wellington clairvoyant, one from Tauranga, and two women from the Spiritualist Church. A clairvoyant from Christchurch had also come to Wellington of her own accord, saying she had strong feelings about where Mr Kelly, 23, could be found.

At a meeting last night suggestions from the clairvoyants were considered and it was decided to check the nominated area today.

Ms Allan said the clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly had been robbed somewhere near Ecstasy Plus nightclub by two men. He had been dumped in bushes near Oriental Parade, where he lay for a few days before the men panicked and took him away.

Ms Allan was told a third man was possibly involved and one clairvoyant could give detailed descriptions of the three, who were rough-looking Maoris, aged about 26. She could describe their tattoos and would recognise them if she saw them.

The clairvoyants thought Mr Kelly was near farmland and saw trees, buildings and cattle grates. Ms Allan said the women felt the third man had not wanted to hurt Mr Kelly, but one of the men wanted him dead.

All three clairvoyants had independently given the same description of the men’s car and police were following that up. …
From the Dominion, 12 November 1992.

Natural ebullience may have led to Kelly’s death

By MATTHEW GRAINGER

Michael Kelly, whose body was found at the bottom of a light shaft in a Wellington inner-city building yesterday, may have contributed to his death by his ebullient nature. His friends had told police that he had sometimes climbed buildings – and on one occasion a crane – after drinking.

Mr Kelly, 23, who started a police hunt when he went missing four weeks ago, was found at the foot of a three-storey shaft in the Moore Wilson building in Tory St by a worker who opened an internal window on to the shaft. He had last been seen on October 18 outside Ecstasy Plus nightclub on the corner of Tory St and Courtenay Place.

Detective Inspector Lloyd Jones said police were searching for clues to reconstruct the events that led to Mr Kelly’s fall. Mr Jones said Mr Kelly’s death was seeming “less like foul play, misadventure is more apparent.”…
From the Dominion, 17 November 1992.

Both articles reprinted in NZ Skeptic 26.

If meetings really lower IQ…

… then there’s little hope for the world, says Alison Campbell, who attends far too many meetings. Fortunately however, that may not be the case.

I attend a lot of meetings; that’s the nature of my job. Recently the Dean came in and waved the front section of the NZ Herald under my nose. “Look,” he said, “all those meetings are really bad for you.” Scenting a way of getting out of them, I grabbed the paper and found the article in question (syndicated from the UK paper, The Telegraph).

“Attending meetings lowers your IQ,” cried the headline, and the article goes on to say that:

“[the] performance of people in IQ tests after meetings is significantly lower than if they are left on their own, with women more likely to perform worse than men.”

The story is based on a press release about research carried out at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Institute. And this showed that the research outcomes were more nuanced and more complex than the newspaper story would have it. The research found that small-group dynamics – such as jury deliberations, collective bargaining sessions, and cocktail parties – can alter the expression of IQ in some susceptible people (Kishida et al. 2012).

In other words, meetings don’t necessarily lower your baseline IQ. What they may do is change how you express that IQ, particularly if you’re susceptible to peer pressure. The internal urge to conform can result in people making decisions as part of a group that they might not have made on their own, especially if they have concerns about their status in that group. (As the Virginia Tech release notes, this was shown to good effect in the superb film 12 Angry Men, with Henry Fonda leading a stellar cast.)

The researchers placed study participants in groups of five and studied their brain activity (using MRI scans) while the groups were engaged in various tasks. While the groups were working they were also given information about the intellectual status of group members, based on their relative performance on those cognitive tasks. (There’s a tendency for people to place great store on relative measures of IQ, and where they personally sit on the scale.) And afterwards, when participants were divided on the basis of their performance into high- and low-performing groups before their IQs were measured again, they were found to differ quite signficantly despite the fact that all participants had statistically similar baseline IQs when tested at the beginning of the study.

“Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.”

As I said, this is altogether more nuanced, more complex, and much more interesting than the news story that caught the boss’s eye. I suspect I’ll be attending meetings for a while yet.

K.T.Kishida, D.Yang, K.Hunter Quartz, S.R.Quartz and R.Montague (2012) Phil.Trans.R.Soc.B 367(1589): 704-716.

Using pseudoscience to teach science

There may indeed be a place for creationism in the science classroom, but not the way the creationists want. This article is based on a presentation to the 2011 NZ Skeptics Conference.

We live in a time when science features large in our lives, probably more so than ever before. It’s important that people have at least some understanding of how science works, not least so that they can make informed decisions when aspects of science impinge on them. Yet this is also a time when pseudoscience seem to be on the increase. Some would argue that we simply ignore it. I suggest that we put it to good use and use pseudoscience to help teach about the nature of science – something that Jane Young has done in her excellent book The Uncertainty of it All: Understanding the Nature of Science.

The New Zealand Curriculum (MoE, 2007) makes it clear that there’s more to studying science than simply accumulating facts:

Science is a way of investigating, understanding, and explaining our natural, physical world and the wider universe. It involves generating and testing ideas, gathering evidence – including by making observations, carrying out investigations and modeling, and communicating and debating with others – in order to develop scientific knowledge, understanding and explanations (ibid., p28).

In other words, studying science also involves learning about the nature of science: that it’s a process as much as, or more than, a set of facts. Pseudoscience offers a lens through which to approach this.

Thus, students should be being encouraged to think about how valid, and how reliable, particular statements may be. They should learn about the process of peer review: whether a particular claim has been presented for peer review; who reviewed it; where it was published. There’s a big difference between information that’s been tested and reviewed, and information (or misinformation) that simply represents a particular point of view and is promoted via the popular press. Think ‘cold fusion’, the claim that nuclear fusion could be achieved in the lab at room temperatures. It was trumpeted to the world by press release, but subsequently debunked as other researchers tried, and failed, to duplicate its findings.

A related concept here is that there’s a hierarchy of journals, with publications like Science at the top and Medical Hypotheses at the other end of the spectrum. Papers submitted to Science are subject to stringent peer review processes – and many don’t make the grade – while Medical Hypotheses seems to accept submissions uncritically, with minimal review, for example a paper suggesting that drinking cows’ milk would raise odds of breast cancer due to hormone levels in milk – despite the fact that the actual data on hormone titres didn’t support this.

This should help our students develop the sort of critical thinking skills that they need to make sense of the cornucopia of information that is the internet. Viewing a particular site, they should be able to ask – and answer! – questions about the source of the information they’re finding, whether or not it’s been subject to peer review (you could argue that the internet is an excellent ‘venue’ for peer review but all too often it’s simply self-referential), how it fits into our existing scientific knowledge, and whether we need to know anything else about the data or its source.

An excellent example that could lead to discussion around both evolution and experimental design, in addition to the nature of science, is the on-line article Darwin at the drugstore: testing the biological fitness of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (Gillen & Anderson, 2008). The researchers wished to test the concept that a mutation conferring antibiotic resistance rendered the bacteria possessing it less ‘fit’ than those lacking it. (There is an energy cost to bacteria in producing any protein, but whether this renders them less fit – in the Darwinian sense – is entirely dependent on context.)

The researchers used two populations of the bacterium Serratia marcescens: an ampicillin-resistant lab-grown strain, which produces white colonies, and a pink, non-resistant (‘wild-type’) population obtained from pond water. ‘Fitness’ was defined as “growth rate and colony ‘robustness’ in minimal media”. After 12 hours’ incubation the two populations showed no difference in growth on normal lab media (though there were differences between four and six hours), but the wild-type strain did better on minimal media. It is hard to judge whether the difference was of any statistical significance as the paper’s graphs lack error bars and there are no tables showing the results of statistical comparisons – nonetheless, the authors describe the differences in growth as ‘significant’.

Their conclusion? Antibiotic resistance did not enhance the fitness of Serratia marcescens:

… wild-type [S.marcescens] has a significant fitness advantage over the mutant strains due to its growth rate and colony size. Therefore, it can be argued that ampicillin resistance mutations reduce the growth rate and therefore the general biological fitness of S.marcescens. This study concurs with Anderson (2005) that while mutations providing antibiotic resistance may be beneficial in certain, specific, environments, they often come at the expense of pre-existing function, and thus do not provide a mechanism for macroevolution (Gillen & Anderson, 2008).


Let’s take the opportunity to apply some critical thinking to this paper. Students will all be familiar with the concept of a fair test, so they’ll probably recognise fairly quickly that such a test was not performed in this case: the researchers were not comparing apples with apples. When one strain of the test organism is lab-bred and not only antibiotic-resistant but forms different-coloured colonies from the pond-dwelling wild-type, there are a lot of different variables in play, not just the one whose effects are supposedly being examined.

In addition, and more tellingly, the experiment did not test the fitness of the antibiotic-resistance gene in the environment where it might convey an advantage. The two Serratia marcescens strains were not grown in media containing ampicillin! Evolutionary biology actually predicts that the resistant strain would be at a disadvantage in minimal media, because it’s using energy to express a gene that provides no benefit in that environment, so will likely be short of energy for other cellular processes. (And, as I commented earlier, the data do not show any significant differences between the two bacterial strains.)

What about the authors’ affiliations, and where was the paper published? Both authors work at Liberty University, a private faith-based institution with strong creationist leanings. And the article is an on-line publication in the ‘Answers in Depth’ section of the website of Answers in Genesis (a young-earth creationist organisation) – not in a mainstream peer-reviewed science journal. This does suggest that a priori assumptions may have coloured the experimental design.

Other clues

It may also help for students to learn about other ways to recognise ‘bogus’ science, something I’ve blogged about previously (see Bioblog – seven signs of bogus science). One clue is where information is presented via the popular media (where ‘popular media’ includes websites), rather than offered up for peer review, and students should be asking, why is this happening?

The presence of conspiracy theories is another warning sign. Were the twin towers brought down by terrorists, or by the US government itself? Is the US government deliberately suppressing knowledge of a cure for cancer? Is vaccination really for the good of our health or the result of a conspiracy between government and ‘big pharma’ to make us all sick so that pharmaceutical companies can make more money selling products to help us get better?

“My final conclusion after 40 years or more in this business is that the unofficial policy of the World Health Organisation and the unofficial policy of Save the Children’s Fund and almost all those organisations is one of murder and genocide. They want to make it appear as if they are saving these kids, but in actual fact they don’t.” (Dr A. Kalokerinos, quoted on a range of anti-vaccination websites.)

Conspiracy theorists will often use the argument from authority, almost in the same breath. It’s easy to pull together a list of names, with PhD or MD after them, to support an argument (eg palaeontologist Vera Scheiber on vaccines). Students could be given such a list and encouraged to ask, what is the field of expertise of these ‘experts’? For example, a mailing to New Zealand schools by a group called “Scientists Anonymous” offered an article purporting to support ‘intelligent design’ rather than an evolutionary explanation for a feature of neuroanatomy, authored by a Dr Jerry Bergman. However, a quick search indicates that Dr Bergman has made no recent contributions to the scientific literature in this field, but has published a number of articles with a creationist slant, so he cannot really be regarded as an expert authority in this particular area. Similarly, it is well worth reviewing the credentials of many anti-vaccination ‘experts’ – the fact that someone has a PhD by itself is irrelevant; the discipline in which that degree was gained, is important. (Observant students may also wonder why the originators of the mailout feel it necessary to remain anonymous…)

Students also need to know the difference between anecdote and data. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and we do have a tendency to see non-existent correlations where in fact we are looking at coincidences. For example, a child may develop a fever a day after receiving a vaccination. But without knowing how many non-vaccinated children also developed a fever on that particular day, it’s not actually possible to say that there’s a causal link between the two.

A question of balance

Another important message for students is that there are not always two equal sides to every argument, notwithstanding the catch cry of “teach the controversy!” This is an area where the media, with their tendency to allot equal time to each side for the sake of ‘fairness’, are not helping. Balance is all very well, but not without due cause. So, apply scientific thinking – say, to claims for the health benefits of sodium bicarbonate as a cure for that fungal-based cancer (A HREF=”http://www.curenaturalicancro.com”>www.curenaturalicancro.com). Its purveyors make quite specific claims concerning health and well-being – drinking sodium bicarbonate will cure cancer and other ailments by “alkalizing” your tissues, thus countering the effects of excess acidity! How would you test those claims of efficacy? What are the mechanisms by which drinking sodium bicarbonate (or for some reason lemon juice!) – or indeed any other alternative health product – is supposed to have its effects? (Claims that a ‘remedy’ works through mechanisms as yet unknown to science don’t address this question, but in addition, they presuppose that it does actually work.) In the new Academic Standards there’s a standard on homeostasis, so students could look at the mechanisms by which the body maintains a steady state in regard to pH.

If students can learn to apply these tools to questions of science and pseudoscience, they’ll be well equipped to find their way through the maze of conflicting information that the modern world presents, regardless of whether they go on to further study in the sciences.

References

Police check pyramid link to gunman

Police check pyramid link to gunman

Sandra Roberts

Police are checking for any link between gunman Brian Schlaepfer’s “slightly eccentric” behaviour of meditating in a pyramid and his role in the Paerata massacre.

Detective Inspector Kalvin McMinn told Sunday News police were aware of Schlaepfer’s pyramid meditation and would include details in a report to the coroner.

… Regardless of how Paerata gunman Brian Schlaepfer used the power of his pyramid at the bottom of his garden in Ostrich Farm Rd, the end result has been nothing short of destructive: seven people dead, a family in tatters and a community in shock.

And the mystery of what turned the simple-living 64-year-old into a killer is as great as the secrets entombed in the pyramids of ancient Egypt.

According to prophets, pyramids have almost miraculous healing properties. They claim pyramids reduce the crime rate and improve the health of communities in which they are built, and offer hope to people who seek their strength.

So what went wrong with the pyramid used by Schlaepfer? Maybe it was built incorrectly and so Schlaepfer received no positive vibes, theorises New Zealand metaphysician Raymond Bain who flew to London this week for a month-long conference to study ways to improve the world.

He says people don’t understand the power of the pyramids and that it can be like putting people in front of a high-powered motor car…

– From the Sunday News, reprinted in NZ Skeptic 24, June 1992.

Could coconut oil be an option for treating Alzheimer’s?

A new alternative treatment for Alzheimer’s doing the rounds seems to be based on a misunderstanding of the underlying science.
The title of this piece is a question posed by the ‘health correspondent’* in one of our local rags. It was inspired by a video doing the rounds on the internet of an American doctor who is using coconut oil to treat her husband’s Alzheimer’s. The doctor’s name is Mary Newport and she also has a book out: Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure? The Story of Ketones.
So what are ketones and could coconut oil be the new wonder cure for Alzheimer’s? Normally carbohydrates in the diet are converted into glucose which is then used by the body as fuel. However, when facing starvation, the body can burn fats in place of carbohydrates. The liver converts the fats into ketones which can be used in place of glucose. Where it gets interesting is that a particular high-fat diet is being used to successfully treat another brain disease – epilepsy. The ketogenic diet is a strictly controlled, high-fat, adequate protein, low-carbohydrate diet, which has been shown in numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies to be effective for controlling seizures in the group of children that don’t respond to medical treatment (so-called drug resistant epilepsy). Unfortunately studies have shown that it is less effective in adults.

So the ketogenic diet is more than just supplementing the diet with coconut oil. And it isn’t without side effects either, which can include weight loss, kidney stones, and constipation. While these are not insurmountable, the diet can be fatal for people with genetic disorders of fat metabolism. People like these will not be able to use the fats provided in the diet and if insufficient protein and carbohydrate are given, they will start breaking down their own protein stores for fuel, which can lead to coma and death.

So what about ketones and Alzheimer’s? Well it turns out that there are a number of studies looking at raising ketone levels in people with mild to moderate late onset Alzheimer’s. And it looks like they are doing it without the strict ketogenic diet. In a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicentre trial1, subjects were given a daily drink of a ketogenic compound called AC-1202 on top of their normal diets (and prescribed Alzheimer’s medication), and assessed for changes in cognitive performance.

But there was also a little twist to this story. One of the major risk factors for late onset Alzheimer’s is possession of one or more copies of the epsilon 4 variant of the apolipoprotein E gene (APOE4). The more copies of APOE4 you have, the higher your risk of developing the disease. So did AC-1202 improve cognitive performance? Yes, but only for people who didn’t carry any copies of APOE4. What this means is that your genes affect whether or not you respond to ketones. Interestingly, about 10 percent of subjects got a little better without any treatment too.

So what is AC-1202? It is NeoBee 895®, a common food ingredient made using glycerin from vegetable oil and fatty acids from, you guessed it… coconut oil! Although palm kernel oil is also often used. But before you race off to check your APOE4-type and stock up on coconut oil, let’s return to Mary Newport and her husband for a moment. Mary blogs2 about their life with Alzheimer’s, and despite being on coconut oil since 2008, all is not rosy. So if you started this article thinking that adding a little coconut oil to your diet would be the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. As Ben Goldacre would say, I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that!

*A Vitamin and supplement peddler, so I am always a little sceptical of his claims !

  1. Henderson ST, Poirier J (2011). BMC Medical Genetics. 12:137.

  2. coconutketones.blogspot.co.nz

Just why is ‘pioneering’ cancer treatment so expensive?

A heartstring-tugging appeal in the NZ Herald doesn’t tell the full story.

Jesse Bessant is a little boy from Auckland with a very rare brain tumour. He has a ganglioglioma, a tumour that arises from ganglion cells in the central nervous system. As these tumours are very slow-growing, and with the location of his tumour (close to his brain stem) making surgery very risky, Jesse’s doctors have advised a ‘wait and see’ approach. However, the Bessant family have opted instead to try the Burzynski clinic in Houston, Texas, where Dr Stanislaw Burzynski offers his ‘pioneering’ antineoplastin treatment.

The catch? It’s going to cost the Bessants $375,000 to join one of Dr Burzynski’s clinical trials. The family’s fundraising appeal was covered by the NZ Herald in early March under the headline: “Hope for toddler with rare tumour”.

So what are antineoplastins and why is a clinical trial at the Burzynski clinic so expensive? Let’s start with those ‘pioneering’ antineoplastins. Might they be the next big thing in the treatment of cancer? I’m afraid to say that this is unlikely, as it turns out that Dr Burzynski has been trialling antineoplastins for over 35 years and has never produced strong evidence that his approach actually cures patients or increases their chances of long-term survival.

In fact the results of his trials don’t seem to have been published in the peer-reviewed medical literature and the American Cancer Society has gone so far as to recommend that people don’t spend their money on antineoplastin therapy. Dr Burzynski coined the phrase to describe a group of peptides that he identified first in human blood and then in urine and which he claimed to be “natural, non-toxic compounds that cure cancer”.

It turns out that the peptides can also be made by the body metabolising the drug sodium phenylbutyrate, which is how Dr Burzynski has been administering them for several decades now. Rather alarmingly, each 500 mg tablet of sodium phenylbutyrate contains approximately 62 mg sodium, meaning there is considerable risk of side effects including lethargy, weakness, irritability, seizures, coma and even death.

So if antineoplastins are just the by-product of sodium phenylbutyrate, why are Dr Burzynski’s clinical trials so expensive? After all, patients don’t usually have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to join a clinical trial. Sometimes they might even be reimbursed for taking part! It turns out that Dr Burzynski doesn’t just treat patients with his ‘antineoplastins’ anymore. Instead, he seems to be exploiting a very legitimate trend in real cancer therapy, often referred to as personalised medicine. Here patients are tested for particular disease markers which have been shown to respond to specific therapies. Orac, of the Respectful Insolence blog, has described Dr Burzynski’s “Personalized Gene Targeted Cancer Therapy” approach as “throwing everything but the kitchen sink” at the tumours. In fact, Dr Burzynski’s personalised therapy is part of a complaint against him by the Texas Medical Board, which is currently awaiting a hearing date. The complaint describes Dr Burzynski’s treatment of a patient with metastasised breast cancer, which included prescribing sodium phenylbutyrate with another four very expensive immunotherapy agents, none of which are approved for the treatment of breast cancer, and in combination with a chemotherapy agent.

In fact, it also transpires that Dr Burzynski owns the pharmacy that supplies the drugs he prescribes. His pharmacy is also accused of overcharging for drugs. A former patient, Lola Quinlan, has filed a lawsuit, claiming Dr Burzynski swindled her out of nearly $100,000 by using false and misleading tactics, including charging $500 per pill for drugs that could be bought elsewhere for a fraction of that price. And as well as the cost of drugs, there are his consultation fees, listed on one potential patient’s blog as:

  • Review of medical records prior to commencing treatment – $500
  • Initial consultation appointment – $1,000
  • “Genetic Tumor Markers” test – $4,000
  • Monthly treatment fee (with treatment suggested to last 4 to 12 months) – $4,500 – $6,000

All of which might explain why Dr Burzynski lives in a mansion with his initials in gold on the gates! But none of this was covered in the NZ Herald article. Don’t those being asked to donate deserve to know where their money is going? Instead, my emails to the journalist remain unanswered and Letter to the Editor unpublished. And the Bessant family continue to raise funds to send their child to be treated by a man who is accused by the Texas Medical Board of “unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public or injure the public”. Pioneering? More like profiteering, if you ask me.

Have universities degraded to teaching ‘only’ scientific knowledge?

Alison Campbell considers the current state of tertiary education.

The title for this article is taken from one of the search terms used by people visiting my ‘other’ blog, Talking Teaching, which I share with Marcus Wilson and Fabiana Kubke. It caught my eye and I thought I’d use it as the basis of some musings.

We’ll assume that this question is directed at science faculties. Using the word ‘degraded’ suggests that a university education used to provide more than simply a knowledge base in science.

(If I wanted to stir up a bit of controversy I could say that it’s just as well that they ‘only’ teach scientific knowledge, however that’s defined. My personal opinion is that the teaching of pseudoscience, eg homeopathy, ‘therapeutic touch’ etc, has no place in a university, and it’s a matter of some concern that such material has appeared in various curricula in the US, UK and Australia, among other countries. Why? Because it’s not evidence-based, and close investigation – in one case, by a nine-year-old schoolgirl – shows that it fails to meet the claims made for it. You could teach about it, in teaching critical thinking, but as a formal curriculum subject? No way.)

Anyway, back to the chase. Did universities teach more than just ‘the facts’, in the past? And is it a Bad Thing if we don’t do that now?

I’ll answer the second question first, by saying that yes, I believe it is a Bad Thing if all universities teach is scientific knowledge – if by ‘knowledge’ we mean ‘facts’ and not also a way of thinking. For a number of reasons. Students aren’t just little sponges that we can fill up with facts and expect to recall such facts in a useful way. They come into our classes with a whole heap of prior learning experiences and a schema, or mental construct of the world, into which they slot the knowlege they’ve gained. Educators need to help students fit their new learning into that schema, something that may well involve challenging the students’ worldviews from time to time. This means that we have to have some idea of what form those schemas take, before trying to add to them.

What’s more, there’s more to science than simply ‘facts’. There’s the whole area of what science actually is, how it works, what sets it apart from other ways of viewing the world. You can’t teach that by simply presenting facts (no matter how appealingly you do this). Students need practice in thinking like a scientist, ‘doing’ science, asking and answering questions in a scientific way. And in that sense, I would have to say that I think universities may have ‘degraded’.

Until very recently, it would probably be fair to say that the traditional way of presenting science to undergraduates, using lectures as a means of transmitting facts and cook-book labs as a means of reinforcing some of those facts (and teaching practical skills), conveyed very little of what science is actually all about. And it’s really encouraging to see papers in mainstream science journals that actively promote changing how university science teaching is done (eg Deslauriers et al, 2011, Haak et al, 2011, and Musante, 2012).

Of course, saying we’ve ‘degraded’ what we do does make the assumption that things were different in the ‘old days’. Maybe they were. After all, back in Darwin’s day (and much more recently, in the Oxbridge style of university, anyway) teaching was done via small, intimate tutorials that built on individual reading assignments and must surely have talked about the hows and the whys, as well as the whats, of the topic du jour.

However, when I was at university (last century – gosh, it makes me feel old to say that!) things had changed, and they’d been different for quite a while. Universities had lost that intimacy and the traditional lecture (lecturer ‘transmitting’ knowledge from up the front, and students scrabbling to write it all down) was seen as a cost-effective method of teaching the much larger classes that lecturers faced, particularly in first-year.

In addition, the sheer volume of knowledge available to them had increased enormously, and with it, the pressure to get it all across. And when you’re under that pressure to teach everything that lecturers in subsequent courses require students to know before entering ‘their’ paper, transmission teaching must have looked like the way to go. Unfortunately, by going that route, we’ve generally lost track of the need to help students learn what it actually means to ‘do’ science.

Now, those big classes aren’t going to go away any time soon. The funding model for universities ensures that. (Although, there’s surely room to move towards more intimate teaching methods in, say, our smaller third-year classes? And in fact I know lecturers who do just that.) But there are good arguments for encouraging the spread of new teaching methods that encourage thinking, interaction, and practising a scientific mindset, even in large classes. Those papers I referred to show that it can be done, and done very successfully.

First up: there’s more to producing a scientifically literate population than attempting to fill students full of facts (which they may well retain long enough to pass the end-of-term exam, and then forget). We need people with a scientific way of thinking about the many issues confronting them in today’s world. Of course, we also need a serious discussion at the curriculum level, about what constitutes ‘must-have’ knowledge and what can safely be omitted in favour of helping students gain those other skills. (This is something that’s just as important at the level of the senior secondary school curriculum.)

And secondly: giving students early practice at doing and thinking about science may encourage more of them to consider the option of graduate study, maybe going on to become scientists themselves. In NZ graduate students are funded at a higher rate than undergraduates, and the PBRF system rewards us for graduate completions, so there’s a good incentive for considering change right there!

References
Deslauriers, L.; Schelew, E.; Wieman, C. (2011): Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332 (6031), 862-4.
Haak, D. C.; HilleRisLambers, J.; Pitre, E.; Freeman, S. (2011): Increased structure and active learning reduce the achievement gap in introductory biology. Science, 332 (6034),1213-6.
Musante, S. (2012): Motivating tomorrow’s biologists. Bioscience 62(1): 16.

New woo for you

Alison Campbell learns how to fine-tune the universe with a didgeridoo.

Recently a commenter on Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog ( scienceblogs.com/insolence) mentioned the therapeutic use of didgeridoos for various health issues. Surely this is a joke, I thought. But no: it seems that didgeridoo sound therapy (Http://www.didgetherapy.com) is indeed alive and well.

Apparently it works by:

(a) producing ultrasound frequencies that have a massaging effect (no, really!);

(b) clearing “emotional and energetic stagnation”; and

(c) allowing” meditation and mind-body healing”. And of course “[m]editation can also be used to quantum manifest healing and the co-creation of our universe.”

Wow! Who’d have thunk it? Every time someone meditates, they’re fine-tuning the universe (if not actually remaking it anew).

So, we have all the signs of classic ‘woo’ here. Quite apart from the (mis) use of words like ‘quantum’ (in the words of Inigo Montoya, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”), we have information-poor statements like this (original grammar but I’ve emphasised a phrase):

“This low frequency producing characteristic of the didgeridoo creates a no touch “sound massage” and has been reported to provide similar results as conventional ultra sound treatments and relieve a wide range of joint, muscular and skeletal related pain.”

“reported”… By whom, to whom, and where? In other words, show us the data. Without that, we are simply dealing with anecdote and testimonial.

And there’s the energy cleansing: here the website blurb refers to both TCM and Ayurvedic ‘medicine’, and gushes that the effects of playing a didgeridoo are as follows;

“The most basic description one could give for the energetic clearing power of the didgeridoo is “it is like a reiki or qi gong power washer.” It has been reported that the energetic clearing effects are similar to traditional five-element acupuncture.”

This might be fine if reiki actually did anything… And there’s that “reported” again. Plus, how was the similarity to the results of acupuncture measured, and for which ailments? (There’s quite a list of health issues for which didgeridoo therapy is supposedly useful, on that website. At least they don’t claim that it actually cures cancer.(

One testimonial, featured on the website, describes didgeridoo music as an “Ancient Vibrational medicine” (it would be interesting to know how Australian aborigines view this), which fits with the statement that:

“Sound Therapy is based on the theory* that all life vibrates at various frequencies and specifically the human body has multiple vibrational frequencies that can slip ‘out of tune’ due to emotional or energetic stagnation. When these frequencies are ‘out of tune’ they can lead to physical and emotional health issues.”

This vibration thing has been around for a while – Orac has taken several looks at the various claims made about it (including the truly bizarre claim that DNA produces sound waves, that these can be recorded, and that those recordings can be transmitted to someone else and change their DNA in turn!( However, the idea’s longevity doesn’t actually mean that it’s in any way an accurate reflection of biological reality.

And finally, we have this:

“Didgeridoo Sound Therapy & Sound Healing is not an Aboriginal Australian tradition or practice, though love and respect is given to them for sharing this amazing instrument with the world.”

So – not an “Ancient Vibrational medicine” at all, then …

  • Not ‘theory’ in the sense of ‘strong, scientific explanation for a large number of observations/measurements’, but rather, in the sense of ‘some idea I’ve** come up with.’

** Not me personally!

Seeing what you want to believe

Spoiler alert: Don’t read if you haven’t seen the film Contagion (which I highly recommend) but want to.

“Recently, I saw the new movie Contagion which is about the rapid spread of a virus and how it killed many people around the world while the health authorities refused to consider a potential (natural) cure and instead waited for the development of a vaccine.”

So starts the Ponsonby News’1 resident health ‘correspondent’ (and online vitamin and supplement seller) John Appleton in his December column. Funnily enough, I also saw Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, and have a rather different recollection of the movie. I’ll start by saying I loved it. As science-based movies go, it’s pretty accurate, which isn’t something that can usually be said of science in movies. Well, apart from the fact that the scientists don’t seem to balance their centrifuges. But I’m not going to bang on about that. For those who haven’t seen Contagion, it’s a kind of worst-case-scenario-type movie involving a highly infectious virus (which spreads with the aid of inanimate objects like glasses and door handles – known as fomites( with a massive mortality rate. The virus spreads from an animal to a person and then pretty much rampages across the world with the help of aeroplanes and other forms of transportation. It is absolutely terrifying, even more so because, in this modern world of globalisation and habitat encroachment and destruction, it really could happen this way.

The film’s science advisor was Dr W Ian Lipkin, Professor of Epidemiology and Director of the Centre for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He based the fictional virus in Contagion on Nipah virus, first identified in 1999, when it caused an outbreak of neurological and respiratory disease on pig farms in Malaysia, resulting in over 250 human cases, including 105 human deaths, and the culling of one million pigs. Nipah is carried by some species of fruit bats and its transmission from bats to pigs is thought to be due to an increasing overlap between bat habitats and piggeries in peninsular Malaysia. Like the fictional virus in Contagion, Nipah causes fever and headache leading to coma, but in 14-16 days not four.

Anyway, that’s enough virology. Let’s look at Mr Appleton’s recollection of the “potential (natural( cure” that the health authorities were ignoring, busying themselves instead with trying to find a vaccine. What Mr Appleton is referring to is a subplot involving a blogger and internet conspiracy theorist called Alan Krumwiede, played by Jude Law. He uses his blog to push a homeopathic cure called forsythia, while making money from it. Sounds awfully familiar to me. Krumwiede is portrayed as a real believer, not a cynical charlatan, which also sounds awfully familiar. The film nicely portrays the power of the internet to spread misinformation, as Krumwiede posts footage of himself clearly suffering some viral infection, then taking forsythia and surviving. Turns out he just had the flu. But his championing of a ‘cure’ while the authorities race to find a vaccine leads to a quite chilling scene where people stampede in a pharmacy trying to get hold of forsythia. I thought the director was pretty blatant in his lampooning of the Krumwiede character. But it was obviously too subtle for a true believer. A classic case of confirmation bias, where we see what we want to believe in the ‘evidence’ presented.

But am I just as bad? Where Mr Appleton sees the health authorities ignoring the ‘natural’ brigade, I see the film as a champion for science. Here we have teams of scientists all doing their bit; some are trying to find the source of the infection, others are trying to grow the virus in the lab and develop a vaccine, and then we have the ones dealing with the infected laboratory monkeys trialling potential vaccines. One of the characters even does a ‘Barry Marshall’2, dosing herself with the top candidate vaccine and then visiting her dying father in hospital to expose herself to the virus.

While the lesson I take from the movie is how we really should be addressing the issue of habitat destruction if we want to avoid such a pandemic in the future, Mr. Appleton uses it as a chance to push the importance of taking high dose vitamin C to prevent and treat disease. To be fair, at least Vitamin C has an active ingredient, unlike forsythia. Naturally he brings up the case of Allan Smith, the farmer with swine flu, whose family fought to have him treated with high dose vitamin C. He survived. Accompanying Mr Appleton’s column is a full page advert for the book ‘Primal Panace’ by Thomas E Levy, which promises to reveal how “Vitamin C can be used to prevent and treat hundreds of infectious diseases (viral and bacterial(…”. If we do face a pandemic, is this what the people of Ponsonby are going to be stampeding to their pharmacies to buy? Oh I forgot, they can buy it from Mr Appleton’s website. Enough said.

  1. The Ponsonby News is a monthly 150 page glossy A4 advertising magazine distributed free to over 16,000 homes and businesses in Auckland.

  2. The Australian medic who won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for his role in the discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease; he famously drank a culture of H. pylori, developing gastritis a few days later.

I declare the following conflict of interest (which is more than John Appleton ever does…): I am a publicly funded research scientist working in the field of microbiology. I am a strong proponent of vaccination. And before you ask, I’m not in the pay of Big Pharma.

Pseudoscience for profit

Proponents of alternative therapies often throw around charges of vested interest when challenged. But often their own interests don’t bear scrutiny.

As this is the first of what I hope will be a regular column in the NZ Skeptic, I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you all a little bit about who I am and what has motivated me to write this column (besides David twisting my arm…). I am a research scientist with two obsessions: bioluminescence (the production of light by living organisms – think glow worms and fireflies), and nasty microbes. I feel immensely privileged to have made a career out of combining these two passions: in a nutshell, I make bacteria glow in the dark for a living.

After many years working in the UK, I was awarded a fellowship from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and relocated to the University of Auckland. Shortly after arriving in Auckland I joined Skeptics in the Pub and a fellow skeptic lent me a copy of Trick or Treatment. This fantastic book, written by Dr Simon Singh and Prof Edzard Ernst, reviews the evidence for the effectiveness of complementary and alternative medicine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell this audience that despite very little evidence for their success, these treatments are widely used.

In the final chapter, Singh and Ernst list some reasons why this might be. Surprisingly, scientists are on their list. Singh and Ernst argue that alternative health practitioners are highly vocal and many of their claims go unchallenged. They believe scientists have a responsibility to make their voices heard too. I found Singh and Ernst’s call to arms inspirational and took up blogging and writing letters to the editor as a result.

A very rich source of ire comes from a free monthly 150-page glossy A4 advertising magazine called the Ponsonby News, distributed to over 16,000 homes and businesses in Auckland. The Ponsonby News has a couple of ‘health correspondents’: John Appleton, who has a website selling vitamin and other supplements, and ‘Dr’ Ajit, an Ayurvedic practitioner with a couple of spas in Auckland. For those unfamiliar with Ayurvedic ‘medicine’, it is a system of traditional medicine that originated in India. Mr Ajit’s column is usually pretty funny, like urging people with hay fever not to eat stodgy food in winter for fear it will clog them up.

But John Appleton’s column usually worries me. A couple of months ago, he was inspired by an article he read in the Listener assessing the risks and benefits of hormone replacement therapy, which advised readers to avoid the internet and talk to their doctors instead. Unsurprisingly, Mr Appleton was somewhat horrified by this suggestion having “found the internet to be a fabulous resource” for researching topics like hormone replacement therapy.

Indeed, what he went on to write about was ‘bio-identical’ hormones which he implied are a safe and effective alternative to hormone replacement therapy. I wrote a letter to the editor to point out that the benefits of ‘bio-identical’ hormones were at best overhyped and at worst pseudoscientific nonsense1, which prompted a reply both through his column and in person. In it, I was accused of being part of the medical establishment, locked away in my ivory tower, only interested in “science for profit”, unlike those in the complementary and alternative medicine field, who he believes are doing “science for people”. He has since sent me an envelope full of reading material to show me just how bad evidence-based medicine is.

It was really interesting to read the propaganda material which has shaped Mr Appleton’s views on evidence-based medicine and the medical establishment. Needless to say, they are all non-peer reviewed articles posted on natural health websites.

I found one article in particular quite fascinating, as it trumpeted Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced gastroenterologist who insists there is a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination. As a microbiologist, I am very familiar with Wakefield’s work, which is just plain old bad science (see NZ Skeptic 100). But Wakefield continues to be held up as a shining example of how a good doctor trying to do the best for his patients has been vilified by the medical establishment. If this kind of material is what Mr Appleton is using as his evidence base then I’m definitely alarmed!

I am left contemplating Mr Appleton’s concept of “science for profit” versus “science for people”. I have never thought of myself as doing science for profit. True, I make a decent living being a scientist but it is nothing like the money I imagine some of those involved in alternative medicine make. It is worrying that the alternative health field has successfully propagated the belief that it is purely motivated by improving people’s health and wellbeing, completely glossing over the fact that it is an extremely lucrative industry.

Indeed, one of the pieces of evidence that Mr Appleton used to back up the claims he made about ‘bio-identical’ hormones was a review paper written by a medical doctor called Kent Holtorf and published in an obscure peer-reviewed journal. Interestingly, Dr Holtorf declared no conflicts of interest despite the fact that he is founder of the Holtorf Medical Group which has offered ‘bio-identical’ hormone therapy for over 10 years. Science for people? More like ‘pseudoscience for profit’, if you ask me.

1‘Bio-identical’ was a phrase coined to describe plant-derived molecules believed to be identical to human hormones. No evidence has ever been presented to verify this. Many of the conventional treatments include similar plant-derived molecules. The difference is that the conventional therapies have been studied over many years so doctors know what the side effects and risks associated with them are. There is no evidence that ‘bio-identical’ hormones are safer or more effective; it is likely they have the same side effects and risks. As for it being pseudoscience, ‘bio-identical’ hormone treatment often involves blood or saliva testing to determine which hormones are deficient and hence tailoring treatment to the individual. While this sounds like a good idea, there is no scientific basis or indeed evidence that such a strategy is useful or relevant. In fact, hormone levels in the blood and saliva vary from day to day and are unlikely to reflect the actual biological activity in specific tissues.

Dishwashers of doom

Alison Campbell investigates alarming reports on what is living in our dishwashers.

I don’t know what worried me more about an article I read in The Registrar recently (www.theregister.co.uk/2011/06/21/dishwasher_peril/) – the implication that my dishwasher and its fungal denizens might be out to get me (which I suppose could necessitate returning to Plan B: the Significant Other; after all, I do the cooking, so he can wash up!), or the rather piss-taking tone of the story. I mean, how else to take the headline: “The Killer Mutant Fungus in Your Dishwasher: don’t approach without a biohaz suit and a flame-thrower” ?

On the other hand, it did spur me into going to look for the original article (P Zalar, M Novak, GS de Hoog, N Gunde-Cimerman 2011: Journal of Fungal Biology: 10.1016/j.funbio.2011.04.007). And now I know that the ‘interesting’ black stuff that sometimes springs up around the seals is probably a living organism and not necessarily due to the family’s regrettable inability to rinse dishes before loading. (The authors of the article don’t actually say whether their investigation was initiated after observing similar black mouldy bits, but I can’t help wondering…)

Now, purveyors of various household cleaning agents would have us believe that the kitchen is home to a range of nasty microbes, which can be held at bay only by spraying or wiping with various anti-microbial or antiseptic products. (I wonder how my family remains so healthy, in the absence of many of these wondrous chemicals.) But you’d think something like a dishwasher would be hygienically clean – after all, anything that goes through the wash cycle has been exposed to high temperatures and a fairly alkaline (high pH) environment (although that may be changing, as we move to less harsh detergents and cooler temperatures in attempts to use less energy and release fewer wastes).

Not according to Zalar and colleagues. Noting that our knowledge of organisms that live in extreme environments (extremophiles) is expanding, they decided to look away from the hot pools and volcanic vents and into a more mundane environment – the domestic dishwasher. Anything that can colonise and survive in that machine’s hot, alkaline conditions could also rightly be described as an extremophile – one with a ready source of nutrients from all those messy food smears. So the team took samples from the inside surfaces of dishwashers: specifically, the rubber seals, as their surface would be easier to colonise than slick metal.

They ended up sampling 189 machines from private homes: 102 from Slovenia, 42 from elsewhere in Europe, and the rest from North and South America, Africa, Australia, Israel, and Far-East Asia. Because they were interested in the possibility of dishwashers harbouring human pathogens, they incubated their samples at 37°C, before going on to test the ability of some of them to grow at temperatures closer to what you might find in an operating dishwasher.

The results – a range of fungi, including Aspergillus (which can cause quite significant disease), Candida (aka ‘thrush’) and Penicillium, with the most commonly-found species – in around a third of dishwashers – being the ‘black yeasts’ (Exophalia spp.) They also found quite a bit of variation in terms of how ‘infected’ the machines were, with those from North America having the most fungal species while those from Spain were all devoid of fungal life. However, I think the numbers are a bit low to draw much from that, with only 13 from North America and five from Spain.

Exophalia is “known to cause systemic disease in humans” and is a common pathogen in the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients. Some of the Exophalia strains survived in temperatures up to 47°C, although I do wonder how they could hang on given that dishwasher temperatures can exceed 60° and get up to 80°C on occasion. The authors don’t propose any survival mechanisms, and I’d like to hear more about that.

However (before you rush out and get rid of the dishwasher) they found no evidence of fungal illnesses that could be attributed to the ‘dishwasher’ fungi in the homes where they obtained their samples. So while the possibility is there for the home dishwasher to be a hotbed of infection, in practice no link has yet been observed. And this rather gives the lie to the somewhat hysterical tone of the Register report. We’re not yet at the point of needing haz-mat suits to wear while doing the dishes. Still, I suppose that approach wouldn’t sell so many papers…

But it’s also rather cool to think that extremophile organisms may be living much closer to home – no need to head off to the slopes of Erebus or the edge of a boiling soda spring to spot them.

I must go and get the rubber gloves and baking soda…

The (bad) science behind the MMR hoax

The world-wide panic over the MMR vaccine was sparked by the actions of one doctor who breached several standards of scientific practice. This article is based on a presentation to the 2010 NZ Skeptics conference.

Every few years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes a series of ‘death tables’, a summary of how many people died in a given year and the causes of death. The tables make interesting reading. The figures published for 2004 show that a third of all deaths worldwide were due to infectious diseases, a staggering 15.1 million people1. Of these, four million may have been prevented by vaccination.

As a microbiologist, I am staggered by the growing anti-vaccination movement. Vaccination has to be the success story of ‘modern’ medicine. Just look at the benefits: vaccination can provide lifelong protection, does not rely on correct diagnosis or treatment being available and can avoid some forms of auto-immune disease that can be triggered by infection. As the saying goes, prevention is better than a cure. While it is true that vaccines are not 100 percent risk-free, the benefits to both the vaccinated individual and the wider community (through ‘herd immunity’) far outweigh the risks.

What is fascinating about vaccination ‘hysteria’ is that different countries have different scares, even though they are using the same vaccines. One such scare, which has resulted in a resurgence of measles in a number of countries, relates to the MMR vaccine. This is a freeze-dried preparation of three living but disabled viruses: measles, mumps and rubella. In the 1990s, a British doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield claimed there was a link between MMR vaccination and autism. He claimed to have discovered a new syndrome, which he called autistic colitis, in which autistic children were found to have a particular kind of gut disease.

He also claimed to have found that the appearance of symptoms of autism coincided with MMR vaccination, and children with autistic colitis had measles virus in their guts. His findings were based on a study of 12 children with developmental and intestinal problems, published in the Lancet medical journal in 19982. Nine of the children were diagnosed with autism. The children were believed to have been developing normally and then suddenly regressed, and parents were asked to recall how close to the time of MMR vaccination the symptoms appeared.

The study suffers from a number of crucial flaws, not least the lack of blinding or control groups, or potential for parents to incorrectly recall the appearance of symptoms. It also turned out that Andrew Wakefield had numerous conflicts of interest: he was receiving money from lawyers looking to build a case against a vaccine manufacturer, had submitted a patent on an alternative measles vaccine, breached ethics compliances and even paid children at a birthday party for donating blood.

The journalist Brian Deer was instrumental in bringing all of these conflicts to the public’s attention and has maintained a website (briandeer.com/mmr-lancet.htm) summarising his investigations into Wakefield and the MMR debacle. Recently, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) commissioned Deer to write a series of articles summarising his findings3-5. In 2010, Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of misconduct and struck off the medical register in the UK and the Lancet finally retracted his paper.

In an editorial accompanying one of Deer’s articles, the BMJ’s editors asked:

“What of Wakefield’s other publications? In light of this new information their veracity must be questioned. Past experience tells us that research misconduct is rarely isolated behaviour.”

What of his other work? Indeed, the Lancet paper was just the first in a series of papers by Wakefield attempting to link autism with measles. One of the things he showed was that measles virus could be detected in the guts of autistic children using a technique called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). PCR is a fantastic technique used to amplify very small amounts of target genetic material to generate over a billion copies. In a nutshell this means PCR can take something that is undetectable and make it detectable. However, one of the downsides of such a sensitive technique is that it is very easy to contaminate, so proper controls are really important. For those who want to know how PCR works, there are some very nice videos online (youtube/eEcy9k_KsDI).
One of the crucial things needed to carry out PCR is a set of very specific ‘primers’ which recognise the region of genetic material that you want to amplify (Fig 1). You need primers to each end of the region of interest and then PCR amplifies the bit between the primers. So if the primers match the wrong region, you will end up with a large amount of the wrong thing, a classic case of garbage in, garbage out. So the important things to remember are:

  1. The primers need to be specific so that they only amplify what you are targeting and nothing else.
  2. You have to be very, very careful not to contaminate the reaction.

To make sure the primers are specific and nothing has been contaminated, it is crucial to include a number of controls alongside the samples being tested:

  1. A negative control which has water in place of any target genetic material which will tell you whether you have had a contamination problem or not.
  2. A negative control which has control genetic material that does not contain any of the target sequence which will tell you if your primers are specific enough.
  3. A positive control which has genetic material that does contain the target sequence which will tell you if your reaction has worked.

So, you have your samples and your controls, the PCR machine has done its dash and you are left with a little tube filled with billions of copies of the target sequence (or none if the sample was negative…). This can then be visualised by gel electrophoresis and you are left with something like the picture in Fig 2.
Lane 1 contains a size standard, lane 2 is the negative control containing no genetic material, lane 3 is the negative control containing no target sequence (the very faint band is just the background genetic material), lane 4 is the positive control containing the target sequence and lanes 5 and 6 are our unknown samples (which in this case are all positive). It is important to say here that very rarely would you see an actual gel published in a paper. Most results are just described as the number of positive or negative samples. This is important as it leaves the reader assuming the correct controls were done. But it doesn’t end with gel electrophoresis. To make absolutely certain, the amplified genetic material can be sequenced to confirm it is the correct thing. And if the claims you are making are wide-reaching and/or controversial then sequencing is exactly what should be done.

Andrew Wakefield hypothesised that exposure to the measles virus in the MMR vaccine was a factor in the emergence of his so-called ‘autistic colitis’ and that genetic material from the measles virus would be found in patients with the disease but not healthy controls. He supervised PhD student Nick Chadwick to investigate. The first paper they published (in January 1998) was in the Journal of Virological Methods, reporting a “rapid, sensitive and robust procedure” for amplifying measles RNA6. In August 1998 they published a second paper describing the use of the procedure to look for measles virus in samples from patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)7. They state:

“These results show that either measles virus RNA was not present in the samples, or was present below the sensitivity limits known to have been achieved”.

They then went on to look at the children reported in the, now retracted, Lancet paper (that is, the ones with ‘autistic colitis’). Wakefield never published these results but Nick Chadwick did write up his PhD thesis in 1998. Brian Deer has put the relevant information from the thesis on his website (briandeer.com/wakefield/nick-chadwick.htm). Nick Chadwick concludes: “None of the samples tested positive for measles, mumps or rubella RNA, although viral RNA was successfully amplified in positive control samples”. Despite this negative result from 1998, Wakefield then appears as senior author alongside a team of Japanese researchers in a paper published in April 2000 in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences8 where they report the detection of measles virus:

“One of eight patients with Crohn disease, one of three patients with ulcerative colitis, and three of nine children with autism, were positive. Controls were all negative. The sequences obtained from the patients with Crohn’s disease shared the characteristics with wild-strain virus. The sequences obtained from the patients with ulcerative colitis and children with autism were consistent with being vaccine strains.”

In 2002 Wakefield then published another, bigger study of children suffering ‘autistic colitis’ with a team from Ireland9. They reported:

“Seventy five of 91 patients with a histologically confirmed diagnosis of ileal lymphonodular hyperplasia and enterocolitis were positive for measles virus in their intestinal tissue compared with five of 70 control patients.”

Yasmin D’Souza and colleagues at McGill University in Canada published a very nice study in 2007 in which they compared the primers used by both the Japanese and Irish groups with their own primers for the measles virus on a range of IBD and control intestinal biopsy samples10. Any positive samples were verified by sequencing.

And the results? The primers used by Wakefield and colleagues weren’t specific for measles virus. In fact, the amplified fragments were found to be of mammalian origin. What this means is that human samples should all be positive. Unsurprisingly, when D’Souza tried using genuine measles specific primers they “failed to demonstrate the presence of MV [measles virus] nucleic acids in intestinal biopsy samples from either patients with IBD or controls”. They also failed to find any measles virus in samples taken from over 50 autistic children11. This does suggest that Andrew Wakefield’s research conduct does not stop with the Lancet study.

There is now a huge body of evidence indicating that there is no link between vaccination and autism. Despite this, Andrew Wakefield is held up by many as a hero, fighting a corrupt system with the ‘evil’ pharmaceutical industry at its centre. Wakefield has recently published a book entitled Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines – The Truth Behind a Tragedy. One reviewer wrote:

“Dr. Wakefield sets the record straight. It was not he who showed callous disregard towards vulnerable, sick children with autism. It was the British medical establishment, the General Medical Council, the media and the pharmaceutical industry that threw the children under the bus to protect the vaccine program. This is a book for everyone who cares about our future”.

Who needs evidence, hey?

References

  1. WHO website. www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/
  2. Wakefield AJ, Murch SH, Anthony A, et al. (1998). Lancet 351(9103): 637-41. RETRACTED.
  3. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5347. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5347.
  4. Deer B (2011). BMJ. 342:c5258. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c5258.
  5. Deer B (2011). Secrets of the MMR scare. The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news. BMJ. 342:c7001. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c7001.
  6. Chadwick N, Bruce I, Davies M, van Gemen B, Schukkink R, Khan K, Pounder R, Wakefield AJ (1998). Virol Methods. 70(1):59-70.
  7. Chadwick N, Bruce IJ, Schepelmann S, Pounder RE, Wakefield AJ (1998). J Med Virol. 55(4):305-11.
  8. 8. Kawashima H, Mori T, Kashiwagi Y, Takekuma K, Hoshika A, Wakefield A (2000). Dig Dis Sci. 45(4):723-9.
  9. 9. Uhlmann V, Martin CM, Sheils O, Pilkington L, Silva I, Killalea A, Murch SB, Walker-Smith J, Thomson M, Wakefield AJ, O’Leary JJ (2002). Mol Pathol. 55(2):84-90.
  10. D’Souza Y, Dionne S, Seidman EG, Bitton A, Ward BJ (2007). Gut 56(6): 886-888.
  11. D’Souza Y, Eric Fombonne E, Ward BJ (2006). Pediatrics 118(4): 1664-1675.