Wednesday, August 31, 2005

In the Pipeline

Props out to In the Pipeline, a blog by Derek Lowe who is an organic chemict and drug developer for a major pharmaceutical company. This is a valuable resource for anyone interested in, and with no idea how, the pharmaceutical company really works (ie. me). Apparently they're not always heartless monsters?

Of particular interest as I was skimming through some posts I've missed was how the FDA testing guidelines for clinical drug trials are not enough to predict some side effects that might occur if millions of people take a drug...

"And there's the worry. There is absolutely no way that large enough clinical trials could be run on a drug like this (acomplia) to predict everything that might happen when millions of people start taking it. Can't be done. You can get down to a margin of safety that will get you past the FDA, but that isn't enough, now is it? No, if one person out of a hundred thousand has a nasty side effect, that's enough to bring the sky down on your head. And we can't test down to the level of one-per-hundred-thousand effects."

Food for thought.

Creationism in Schools

From the NY Times:

"In a finding that is likely to intensify the debate over what to teach students about the origins of life, a poll released yesterday found that nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.

The poll found that 42 percent of respondents held strict creationist views, agreeing that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time."

In contrast, 48 percent said they believed that humans had evolved over time. But of those, 18 percent said that evolution was "guided by a supreme being," and 26 percent said that evolution occurred through natural selection. In all, 64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism."

Anyone want to bet that if they took a poll of 16th century Italians, at least 2/3 of them would support teaching that the universe revolves around the earth in school? Sometimes the majority is a little slow in picking up on things for whatever reason. I personally think it's because they just don't care to try and get information on a given topic, or can't understand, or choose not to. To some extent, our government exists in the form that it does, so that these decisions can be made by educated and informed individuals.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Fetus Pain

An interesting article in the NY Times (subscription may be required) on when the fetus feels pain. No way this could cause an uproar. Here's a snippet or two...

"Their report, being published Wednesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a review of several hundred scientific papers, and it says that nerve connections in the brain are unlikely to have developed enough for the fetus to feel pain before 29 weeks."

"There are medical experts on opposing sides of the issue as well, and the only thing they agree on is that it is virtually impossible to tell for sure what a fetus can feel."

"From the available biological evidence, it seems very unlikely that a fetus experiences what we think of as pain before 29 weeks of gestation," Dr. Rosen said in a telephone interview. Giving anesthesia to the fetus could be difficult and would needlessly expose the pregnant woman to additional risks, he said, adding, "Policy decisions should be based on evidence, scientific evidence, not our emotional beliefs."

Like say...when life begins, also?

"Dr. Eleanor A. Drey, one of Dr. Rosen's co-authors, said that as an obstetrician who sometimes performs abortions, she would find it troubling to be compelled to bring up the subject of fetal pain with her patients.

'I would be forced to drag them through potentially a lot of misinformation,' she said. 'Our systematic review has shown it's extremely unlikely that pain exists at a point when abortions are done. I'm going to have to talk about something I know will cause the patient distress, something that by our best assessment of the scientific data is not relevant.'"

The same could probably be said of Intelligent Design theory also, which has yet to be covered in this blog, but most likely will be in the future. Also interesting from this article was that the authors of the paper consisted of "a neuroanatomist, an obstetrician, a pediatrician and a former lawyer who is now a medical student". Seems like a pretty well-balanced and hopefully objective group, and a good example of how the peer-review process and diverse groups are the best route to objective policy and decision making. Taking notes, President Bush? This is not meant to be a Bush-bashing blog, but he does seem to make plenty of decisions made on very personal points of view (or with political implications). Whereas Clinton was known for bringing in experts on both sides of issues and hearing them out, before making many decisions. From what I've read, Bush seems to be the opposite. It's too bad that leaders who do things more like Clinton are often labelled "wishy-washy" or "flip-floppers", while Bush is seen as a "strong leader" because of his willingness to take a stand or make immediate and firm decisions. At least in the scientific world, it's always valuable to see all the evidence first.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"Irrationalist in Chief"

Dr. Leon Kass is President Bush's chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, and a leading advocate therefore, of alternatives to embryonic stem cell research, such as the reprogramming methods that have recently been in the news. Here's a recent quote from him:

Since every cell in the body is genetically the same as any other, what distinguishes the liver cell from a brain cell from a heart muscle cell is not the presence or absence of certain genes, but which genes are in fact turned on and functioning, and which ones are silent. And since the process of development and differentiation going forward starts with a cell that could become anything, but specializes to become liver, or brain, or heart — presumably if you could locate the signal that produced that specialization, and run the process in reverse, you could start from liver, or heart or brain or muscle or skin, run the process in reverse and get back to the "stemcellness" of the beginning.

(Link here.)

Now first of all, it's only somewhat disturbing that a key advisor to the president invents a word like "stemcellness". In fairness to Dr. Kass (of whose background I know very little at this point...but I'm guessing he went to Hollywood Upstairs Medical School?), his job as chairman is probably largely dictated by the President (obviously), and is probably charged with publicizing all possible alternatives and lauding the therapeutic "promise" they all have, and not with engaging in intellectual debate about the relative merits of these ideas or the nature of embryonic stem cells and the morals of using them. And he's not even wrong about how every cell in the body contains the same genetic material, and how the main difference between different cell types is which subset of genes are turned on. But it is a pretty huge stretch to think that we can reverse engineer a stem cell from a fully differentiated adult cell. And even if we could (actually, I would speculate this could be possible in some form in the future...but how far off?), what guarantee would there be that it is a perfect replacement for an embryonic stem (ES) cell? Ultimately, you need to test the capabilities of ES cells to have something to compare with. And many of these reprogramming methods require an ES cell to fuse with an adult cell, or to transfer a somatic cell's nucleus to. The common denominator here? At some point, you just need embryonic stem cells. And guess what? They are available! All right, maybe you don't need them if these other ideas prove able enough. But the point is that ES cells are out there, and they are basically a known quantity (compared to these other more fledgling ideas). So why not use them? Are we so sure of when life begins and what is morally correct that we need to make scientists jump through all these hoops to find a loophole? If I had diabetes, I'd be pissed.

Monday, August 22, 2005

This blog...

...was created to provide an "open market of ideas" in the John Stuart Mills sense, on matters of science, ethics, and politics that have recently started to receive national attention in our country. The stem cell debate, the Vioxx trials, and implantable defibrillator recalls are notable newsmakers that have been in the news of late and examples of potential topics. In the spirit of the "open market", it is the goal of this blog to have opinion expressed on all sides of a topic from the moderator himself, guest writers, and by providing open commentary after each post to anyone who's willing to chime in. A secondary goal is to be a place where science in the news stories are collected, at least the most interesting ones (to me, heh). There are certainly many similar (and excellent) sources for this, but particular attention will be paid to topics that are controversial, and that address areas where science, politics, ethics, and religion clash. And lastly, this blog will, from time to time, serve as a personal outlet from a scientist on the inside of the biotech/biomed universe. Compared to some of the other excellent science bloggers out there, I am a bit more fledgling in my life in as a professional, but my enthusiasm is great. And my interest in popularizing and educating non-scientists about the nature of scientific inquiry and it's accomplishments is greater still...particularly in correcting or clarifying how the press generally presents these issues (ie. poorly). Welcome to the PES forum, and if you like what you read, please tell your friends...