Friday, 21 December 2012

Glorious Genetics

Humans are 99.9% genetically identical to each other, and we are 80% genetically similar to cows(1), and yet we are drastically different. If we are genetically the same how is it possible that we can look so different? This is down to gene regulation, much of which is being controlled during the embryonic stages of life, when the basic body plan is being formed(2). A regulatory gene controls the function of a gene or set of genes, determining when the gene makes gene products, for example a protein or enzyme. So, while both humans and cows have genes for growing hair, our regulatory genes turn off the expression of hair genes whereas the cow expresses this gene.

In some cases, there can be complicated networks of genes involved to bring about regulation. For example, a regulatory gene can control the expression of a gene which makes a protein like calcium hydroxylapatite, this proteins function could be to activate another gene and produce bone growth. Since the production of proteins like calcium hydroxylapatite is highly regulated, and can only occur as specific times, for example following a bone fracture. However, most cells determine their function very early on in development, and so skin cells only divide and form more skin cells and not bone or teeth. Only stem cells can become any type of cell, and this is determined through a variety of mechanisms, including the chemicals surrounding the cell.

Recently there was a medical incident where these regulatory mechanisms were demonstrated. A woman received cosmetic surgery involving adult stem cells being removed from her abdomen and being inserted in to her face to reduce wrinkles(3). However, dermal filler was injected in to the face at the same time. While dermal filler has been shown to be very safe, it does contain calcium hydroxylapatite, and so caused the stem cells to differentiate into bone. Luckily, the woman underwent a surgical procedure to remove these small bones that formed and has recovered. This case highlights the fact that stem cell science is a very new technology and needs better government regulation(4)(5), and that regulatory genetics is still an emerging science with a lot to be discovered.


E Markham (2012). Glorious Genetics Blogspot
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Thursday, 22 November 2012

Curious Cosmos

2012 has been a rather special year with regards to cosmological events. On the 13th Nov 2012 a total solar eclipse took place and was viable in Queensland, Australia (1). A solar eclipse is when the moon comes between the sun and the earth, and casts the moons shadow on the earth. A total solar eclipse is a fairly rare occurrence, happening ever few years, but since it only lasts a few minutes it means it is only visible by a small area of the earth when it occurs, and this could be over an ocean or the poles. The Total solar eclipse, as opposed to an Annular eclipse where the sun can still be seen, will not occur in Australia until 2028(2). Around 60, 000 people travelled to Cairns, Queensland to witness the event, luckily experiencing clear skies and a stunning experience(3). Total solar eclipses are not only beautiful but important to astronomy, where they have been used to prove Einstein's theory of general relativity by showing that gravity can bend light and the discovery of Helium, which was the first element to be discovered outside of the earth(4).

June earlier this year(5), the transit of Venus took place; this is where the planet appears to travel across the sun, because of the alignment of the planets and the orbits. From Earth we can only witness transits of Venus and Mercury, because they are the only planets that orbit closer to the sun than earth. Transits of Mercury are very rare, occurring once every 13yrs(2), however, the orbit of Venus is much larger and so transits of Venus are even rarer, occur roughly twice every 120 years. The next transit of Venus is not due to occur until 2117(2), so it is rather a special event. The transit of Venus is particularly important for science as it allows many special calculations and data to be collected that couldn’t be obtained otherwise. In the 18th century the transit of Venus allowed scientists to calculate the size of the solar system(6), which was a huge leap forward for both astronomy and physics of the time.

August this year also saw the landing of the Mars Rover Curiosity(7), which will spend 2 years exploring, photographing and analyzing the Martian surface. The landing itself was an outstanding feat of engineering and watched by millions as the craft entered the atmosphere and touched down. Many have hailed the Mars Rover landing as this generations moon landing. Certainly a significant moment in history and the results from the Rover are likely to influence the future of research to come.

Unfortunately the next few years are going to be cosmologically dull in comparison, as there will be no total lunar or solar eclipses or any transits during 2013. The next significant event will be the transit of Mercury in 2016(2). While the Rover will be exploring the Martian surface there is unlikely to be any Eureka moments in its findings. However, hopefully this past year will have brought curiosity and enthusiasm to a new generation, and influence many young people to see astronomy as an fascinating and exciting subject.
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Monday, 29 October 2012

Lovelace Legacy

Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was encouraged to get involved with mathematics and logic from an early age, she went on to work on Charles Babbage’s early version of the computer and she is considered the first computer programmer(1). She was well recognised in her time for her abilities, and more recently is seen as strong role model for women in science and technology, with Ada Lovelace day as a campaign to recognise and encourage women in the sciences(2).

This year, Wikipedia in conjunction with the Royal Society and Harvard, organised a Wikipedia edit-a-thon to be held on Ada Lovelace day (from the 16th to the 26th Oct 2012), to update pages related to women in science and technology(3). An additional goal of the event was to produce a safe and friendly environment for women to contribute to Wikipedia, where they can learn some of the basics and get hand- on help with creating articles. Women have just as much to contribute to Wikipedia but many are not familiar with how to begin, so this event provides the basic skills needed, after all, the more people who contribute and the more this represents the overall population, then the more comprehensive Wikipedia becomes. Since Wikipedia is currently the 5th most used website in the world(4), making it more representative of global knowledge is a commendable goal.

News of the events was broadcast around the world, appearing on the BBC(5), The Guardian(6), as well as social medial like Twitter(7) and Facebook(8). Hundreds of people, from all around the world took part in the event, creating and improving thousands of articles. Overall, the event can be seen as a huge success, and hopefully many of those new editors will continue contributing to Wikipedia in the future. Either way, encouraging and promoting young people to become involved with science and technology, making it an attractive career, will certainly lead to new discoveries and technological advances that benefit future generations and overcome new global challenges.
(7) #ALDWikithon
E Markham (2012). Lovelace Legacy Blogspot
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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Guinea-pig Generation

In the modern age of medicine, where evidence based medicine (1) takes a defining role in determining what treatments and medications the health service provides, there is a myth that is slowly being dispelled; The myth of the human clinical trial guinea pig.
Medicine was once a subject where quack doctors would prescribe woodlice to treat deafness (2) but now with double-blind (3) clinical trails doctors can now understand what treatments work and which merely seem to be beneficial due to the placebo effect (4). Taking part in a clinical trial is hugely beneficial for society, as it allows science to determine if it is an improved treatment and to determine the side effects in order to weight up the cost-benefit (5) of treatment. It is highly dependent of altruistic volunteers willing to participate, and many are compensated for the time and expenses incurred.
Obviously with any type of compensation there are individuals who are motivated by the money, Abadie has followed the stories of several people in the USA who do clinical trials for a living and has published a book ‘the professional guinea pig’ (6). However most people do not take it to such extremes and many companies put restrictions on the number and spacing of clinical trials a person can participate in within a year. While many people will admit their initial motivating reason for taking part was the financial benefit, most stated at the end of the trail they were more interested in the science behind the trail and the medical condition they were helping to test a new treatment for (7).

The term guinea pig is outdated and misleading, because it suggests that volunteers sign up and have no idea what will happen to them. This is not the case, as all companies require informed consent and have ethical requirements to disclose the procedure and any risks before the subjects take part, so they can choose if this is something they would like to take part in and they are free to withdraw at any time. The image of clinical trials in the media has undergone a rapid change over the last few years and has now become something that most people would be comfortable taking part in, with fewer than 7% of people saying they would never take part in a clinical trial (8). This holds huge benefits for both science and society as a whole.

E Markham (2012). Guinea-pig Generation Blogspot
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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Thoughtful Theories

A scientific theory (1) is not just an unsupported idea of how scientists think something occurs, but is a structured idea supported by extensive evidence, which is tested, pulled apart and challenged in order to refine the idea in to a clear concept. The reason the term ‘Theory’ is used instead of ‘Fact’ is simply because it cannot be ‘Proven’ because the types of tests required to prove that the theory is unequivocally true are either currently unfeasible because the technology currently does not exist or there is not current way of testing it. Theories are not set in stone but are changeable, because they are open to influence from new findings and new data, and so can be refined and changed over time. This is not the same as a hypothesis, which is a suggestion of how something could work, but which needs to be tested, as it does have some initial evidence to support it but it is not as well defined and as rigorously tested as a theory.

The wonderful thing about science is that if you don’t agree or believe in a theory, it does not mean that it is not true or does not exist, just because you do not believe in gravity does not mean you will suddenly start floating away. Of course, there are big differences between types of theories. Theories in physics, like gravity, have a lot of complicated maths and for the most part, factors which are unobservable and untestable. However, more contentious theories, like those of biology, can be seen but take place over huge time scales, which are subsequently very hard for people to conceive of; the most famous would be Darwin’s theory of Evolution, because many people believe that acknowledging this would be to discredit religion.

 Any concept that challenges religious beliefs has always been a difficult, often resulting in much religious outcry and persecution. One of the best known instances of this is where Galileo was persecuted for his theory of heliocentrism, because it suggested that all of the planets in the solar system orbited the sun, and so was seen as heresy and going against the bible and the church, after a long inquisition and trial he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life (2). Fortunately the theory of heliocentrism is now almost universally accepted, and anyone suggesting that the earth is the centre of the universe would be ridiculed. Sometimes it just required a passage of time before the general population can embrace a new scientific theory.


E Markham (2012). Thoughtful Theories Blogspot
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Thursday, 12 July 2012

Brilliant Brains

The brain is a fascinating organ, which has long captivated the human race, from Phrenology1 (the old belief of taking measurements of different areas of the skull to determine personality traits) to the homunculus2 (sections of the sensory and motor cortex are divided in to sections representing different parts of the body, the size of the section dependent on its sensitivity). Due to the complexity of the brain and that it is the controlling region for the entire body, it has long been believed that any damage to the brain would lead to sever disability or death. However that belief is now being challenged.

Recently an elderly man has been featured in the news because he lived for 94 years with a bullet in his head3, but what is maybe more surprising is that he lived a fairly normal life (he was blind in one eye with a slight facial distortion but had a normal job and a family). Another person gaining headlines for head trauma was a sixteen year old girl who was shot through the head with a spear gun while fishing4. She was conscious and felt fairly fine when she arrived at hospital where they removed the spear, and she recovered.

What is most striking about these two people (and the many other people who experience similar trauma who don’t make the news), is that they survive and have a normal life despite the damage to the brain. It is not to suggest that all head trauma is survivable, as it is heavily dependent on what parts of the brain are affected by the trauma. Trauma to the blood vessels that supply the brain or to the brain stem and cerebellum would almost always result in death. Other parts of the brain are more expendable, which challenges the old model of the brain being unable to change or grow new neurons.

Dramatic restructuring of the brain was thought impossible, but a ten year old girl was discovered to have something rather special. She had normal development except for mild seizures when she was three, and after a MRI they discovered she only had half a brain due to a fetal developmental defect5. This case was revolutionary in the field of neurology, as it showed the brain is able to rewire itself and function normally with only one hemisphere. Her brain even rewired both eyes to the one hemisphere, resulting in her being able to see both fields of vision in one eye.

Another woman was able to show that the development of mental disorders is not inevitable but can be challenged, and in some cases reversed6. This challenges the model that personality disorders like ADHD are irreversible, because with challenging cognitive exercises it has been shown to reduce phenotype. This adapts the individual to function more in society and not just get ‘written-off’ by both parents and teachers as untreatable. As research advances it is becoming clearer that the brain is not the fixed structure we once thought, but a highly adaptable organ, and the way we approach treating head injuries and mental disorders needs to change in reflection of these new discoveries.


E Markham (2012). Brilliant Brains Blogspot
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Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Treatment Trials

The history of clinical trials is a varied one, consisting of a mixture of many successes and occasional failures1. Unfortunately, some of the rare failures are often more remembered, and receive far more press coverage, than the successes. One incident in recent history consisted of a clinical trial at Nothwick Park, in North London, where six subjects were hospitalised with multiple organ failure after testing TGN14122, a drug developed for leukemia and arthritis. This received extensive media coverage and still remains in peoples thoughts. For many, the term clinical trials invokes images of needles, being trapped in a hospital room and the notion that the doctors can do whatever they want to you because you have signed your life away.

However, the image of clinical trials has been rapidly changing over the years, and so has the way the public perceive medical trials. This has been seen in the recent changes in the way the media reports clinical trials, representing them in a more beneficial and factual way3, leading to an alleviation of public fears. During this seemingly endless recession, clinical trials appear to be a fast and easy way to make a considerable amount of money. The regulation of medical trials has become increasingly stringent in the years following Nothwick Park, with regulatory authorities and medical companies being required to go to excessive lengths during their recruitment process to carry out medical checks before accepting volunteers into a trail and to fully inform them of the risks of what is involved.

Clinical trials are a vital part of the development of new medicines, without which new drugs cannot be developed and brought to market. This leaves less effective medications and treatments available to people, many of which have undesired side effects or are no longer effective. Animal models, while providing a vital stage in drug development and safety testing, are unable to determine how the drug will react and be metabolised in humans or if the drug will be effective. Medical trials play an essential role in the advancement of science, but they can also be a positive experience for the volunteers, as they gain a greater understanding of how new medications are developed and the rigorous testing they undergo before becoming available to the public. Many volunteers state that initially they took part in trials because of the financial benefits available, but during and after the trial they found the volunteers became more motivated by being involved in the science. Some even went as far as deciding on a career change to medicine4.


E Markham (2012). Treatment Trials Blogspot
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Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hospital History

The Atlas Obscura1 is a compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and eccentric sites. It is a great resource for finding strange and unusual places to explore in both new and familiar locations, allowing you to investigate hidden treasures around the world. With more than 3,500 interesting sites around the world, it is a global phenomenon. Obscura Day is a celebration of these wonderful sites, which takes place on April 28th. The first Obscura Day occurred in 2010, with just 80 locations taking part in the celebration. This day has since taken off in popularity with around 100 events around the world, and there is such high demand that most events quickly become sold out.

One of this year’s events occurred at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in Central London2. The hospital was originally founded in a converted house in 1852, following the trend in Europe and becoming the UK’s first specialty children’s hospital. It was founded by the expert gynecologist Dr Charles West and was specifically intended for poor women and families. Initially the hospital contained 20 children’s beds, but over the years the hospital has expanded several times, with sections being built and rebuilt, leading to a modern institute formed of buildings of varying ages.

The hospital itself is one of Europe’s leading institutes for children’s medicine3. The hospital has received support from Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, who gave the copyright to Great Ormond Street Hospital4.

The Obscura Day tour consisted of a personal tour of the hospital museum, which is located in a building opposite the hospital. The structure is part of a row of houses, which would have been the same as the house the original hospital occupied when it first opened. The museum is filled with artifacts from the hospitals different periods in history, it includes several metal cots, children’s wheelchairs and a variety of metical apparatus. There are a variety of exhibits charting the hospitals history, from the founder and contributors, to the effects of bombing during the world wars. The curator of the museum was a very knowledgeable man, recounting stories from the hospitals colourful history. Over all an amazing opportunity to explore the hidden relics behind a world leading institute and examine the small beginnings of the revolution in children’s healthcare.

E Markham (2012). Hospital History Blogspot
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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Refreshment Review

With headlines like “Drinking water improves exam grades”1 and “How to do better in your exams: Drinking a glass of water can boost your results by a grade”2 in all the top newspapers and news websites, it would hard to dismiss their claims. However all of the articles simply regurgitate and reiterate the exact same press release from the British Psychological Society, in which this research was presented at their annual conference this month3.

The research was interesting because it seemed to claim that by simply encouraging students to take water in to the exam with them they would be able to improve their exam grades. The BBC’s article on this research included the following statement: “Also, supplementing with water is a really cheap way students and educators can help get better results.” They went on to claim the results could be due to the benefits of hydration and stress relieving qualities of water.

This research extrapolates from an observation in a small number of subjects, and it is a typical leap of ‘correlation must mean causation.’ The study did not suggest the far more likely reason that students who take water in to their exams do better than students who don’t, which simply boils down to preparation. Students who take a mature approach to their studies are likely to study in a more structured and efficient manner, and are likely to be very prepared for the exam. Part of being prepared for an exam would be thinking of every eventuality and organising yourself to take everything you might need in to the exam with you, and that would include taking water.

This explains the observation that the percentage of students taking water increases in second and third year of university, because students are learning how to prepare for exams and are becoming more organised. If the researchers honestly thought that the water was the cause of the improved grades then they would carry out a randomised trial, where they took a group of students and randomly assigned half of the students a bottle of water to take in to the exam and then determine if there was a significant difference. What is more frustrating is that this research has taken the media by storm, but has not been critically analysed and peer reviewed before hand, as it has not yet been submitted for publication. Peer reviewing of such research would highlight the need for increased numbers of study subjects and the implementation of randomised trials, before releasing claims that water can improve exam grades, as this is likely to be a fallacy. 

E Markham (2012). Refreshment Review Blogspot
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Thursday, 19 April 2012

TED Talk

The Great Exhibition of 18511 was a grand display of the advances of the industrial revolution, bringing about a transformation in the exchanging of ideas and the way new technology and developments in science are demonstrations. This included the building of the Crystal Palace2, which was a huge feat of engineering, which then spurred the series of events called the World’s Fair3, which lead to fantastical structures that we know and enjoy today, like the Space Needle in Seattle3 and the Atomium monument in Brussels5. A new TEDx lecture at Imperial College London6 last month channelled the spirit of the Great Exhibition and contained a variety of different talks and displays to delight anyone’s interest.

One of the first talks to catch the audiences imagination was the inventor of fabric in a can (Fabrican)7, which is similar to silly sting, but is versatile enough to be washed, cut and embossed, allowing for items of clothing to be created which are unique, personal and changeable. It is also a technology that can transition its application to the field of medicine, as it can be used as a plaster cast or a dressing for wounds.

This was followed by a father of a child with a rare genetic condition called AKU8, who gave a heart wrenching discussion of the work he set in motion: creating a support group, fund raising and bringing together a community or affected individuals and research scientists9. This has produced some breakthroughs for a previously little known disease and lead to the discovery that rare genetic diseases can actually act as models for very common multifactorial diseases, and so help develop improved treatments for these conditions.

Later talks included a demonstration from a group of young engineers who designed an electric car which could drive the entire length of the Pan-American Highway10, a man who played a series of gramophones with recordings of early industrial age sounds11, a talk from a geneticist musician who created pieces of music based on each musician’s genetic composition12, and a talk on reclaiming art with a focus on urban art13. Not only were the talks highly enjoyable and inventive, but there was the opportunity to discuss ideas with the speakers and get involved with their research. It was a wonderful platform to explore ideas and there was an exciting energy among the audience as they discussed the talks.


E Markham (2012). TED Talk Blogspot
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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Miracle massage

Most people will agree that massage is enjoyable, can relax sore muscles and make you feel both emotionally happier and calmer, but very few people claim that massage can ‘stimulate the immune system,’ ‘detox the body’ or produce ‘healing energy’. Of the scientific studies that have been carried out on massage, none have found conclusive evidence of any physical health benefits other than increasing the levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) and providing some psychological benefits, which can lead to a reduction in pain, as this often has a psychological basis. The diagram above is slightly misleading in it's positive claims for massage, as it does not make a distinction of what kind of pain is being reduced by the massage therapy. However, a newly published scientific article1 on massage therapy aims to investigate the direct physical benefits of massage therapy, studying its effects on relieving muscle damage caused by exercise, and claims massage can increase muscle recovery by stimulating mitochondrial growth.

At first it appears like an interesting article that probably over states the significance of the results, but upon further reading of the paper it becomes evident that overstating results was not the biggest flaw of this study; it was the ethics of the study. It is completely baffling how this study obtained ethical approval, because it is investigating an alternative medicine by using extreme invasive procedures on its healthy volunteers.

It used muscle biopsies, which is a surgical procedure involving making an incision and removing a piece of muscle. This is far more invasive than a needle biopsy, and seems an extreme procedure in this case. The main problem I have with this study is not the procedure itself, but the fact that it is being used to investigate massage therapy, where very little potential benefit could be achieved for medicine. The study carried out these procedures based on a theory, and did not even include animal models to check if there was any grounding in their theory before scaling up in to human studies.

Ethical approval is dependent on the cost-benefit of the study, and unfortunately nothing revolutionary is likely to come from massage therapy; as humans have been carrying out basic forms of massage for hundreds of years, and if there was some dramatic benefit we would have already discovered it. So why are we subjecting healthy volunteers to invasive surgical procedures, where nothing significantly valuable could be gained? Ethical committees require more pressure to thoroughly investigate medical and research studies, questioning them in more detail to assess the cost-benefit before allowing the research to be carried out, because without regulatory bodies healthy volunteers would undergo unnecessary and often painful procedures as part of a wild goose chase, which could easily be avoided by a more thorough review process. Essentially this would protect the volunteers, which are at the heart of research, without them no new drug or treatment would be developed. Volunteers should be treated with respect and not subject to unnecessary invasive procedures which have no value.

E Markham (2012). Miracle Massage Blogspot
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Monday, 5 March 2012

Barbaric Bear-bile

Alternative medicine has often gained support because it is seen as natural and so likely to be better for you, whilst ‘working in harmony with nature’. However, in recent years there has been an outcry in the West against Chinese medicine, because of its use of endangered animals and plants, but in the East there is a growing middle class who are turning towards traditional alternative medicines, suddenly producing more demand than ever for these scarce animals. It is true that many countries differ in the way they treat animals and their protection, with the East tending to have more detachment and practical approaches towards animals, however shocking reports of caged bears being ‘milked’ for their bile is just horrific and worrying.

Most of their customers assume that the bear’s bile is collected from a killed wild bear, rather than a caged bear with a tube sticking out of an open wound in its abdomen. Many animal rights campaigns have been fighting for changes in Chinese laws to ban the practice of milking and to protect these endangered Moon bears, but with little effect. A report by the BBC1 stated that ‘the animals suffer enormous physical and psychological pain’ but farmers claim that by caging and milking the bears it lowers the demand for killing wild bears for their bile, and so protects the wild population. However, that does not justify the extensive suffering inflicted on these bears for what can, at best, be described as a placebo and at worst be described as a dangerous, wasteful and inhumane practice. This is just another example of the harmful nature of alternative medicine; this time for not only misleading its patients in to thinking they are getting an effective medical treatment but also for supporting the torture and eradication of an endangered species.


E Markham (2012). Barbaric Bear-bile Blogspot
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