Category Archives: Health

Science and Activism – Why Can’t We Be Friends?

By: Rose Eveleth

As most of the bloggers here are future scientists, I thought it might be interesting to bring up an issue making headlines recently.  Dr. Janet D. Stemwedel explains in a short (albeit quite biased) blog post what Dr. Dario Ringach – formerly at UCLA – has had to endure recently as a researcher working on experiments that use animals.  In short, activists have come to his house, beat on his doors and windows, and intimidated his family and friends.  Dr. Ringach resigned from UCLA when they provided neither support, nor protection.  In the past few weeks, activists have adopted a new plan to attack Ringach’s family.

The LAist confirms that the animal rights activists plan to go to Dr. Ringach’s children’s school to protest and “educate fellow students what their classmate’s father does for a living.”  They have protested at his home before, and now they are going to his children’s school.  One activist writes, “we’ll just tally up the kids as collateral damage, a small price to pay for all the attention it’s getting now.”

Scientific research has long been viewed from afar by “everyday citizens” as suspicious, fraudulent, and perhaps immoral.  What those people in lab coats do is mysterious, confusing and sometimes scary.  This is the same sentiment that causes doubt of every scientific finding, from relativity, to climate change.

Citizens have the right to ask questions and demand transparency in science.  It has become increasingly clear that good science cannot be done without some kind of accountability and reporting mechanism to the people.  Animal rights activists have the right to demand structures in the scientific world that defend animals from misguided research, and yes, such research certainly does happen.  Does that mean they should terrorize a child’s school?  No.  But it does bring up some interesting questions, very salient to the writers here on this blog.

How much responsibility do scientists have to explain themselves to the public?  Is that what science journalists, public information officers, the Discovery Channel, or this blog is for, or is there more.  Many of the arguments that doctors and PhD’s are citing in response to Animal Rights groups is that if they knew how much good animal testing did for medicine they would surely think twice.  If they understood the science behind the experiments, the long term goals and the current success stories.  It is so easy for scientists to say “if only they understood the science, then they would understand.”  Yet none of these scientists appears ready to explain that science to the activists.  Is that not part of the scientist’s job description?

There are certainly bright spots.  At UCLA, they recently had a panel to discuss, civilly, the issue of Animal Research.  The sponsoring group, Bruins for Animals, is saddened to hear that some activists are harassing children and researchers, saying on their website “Some appear determined to continue with their attempts at interfering with this fresh direction the debate is taking.  In a move that defies logic, these activists are now suggesting that children are legitimate targets of their protests.”

It is my hope that the new generation of activists is more like Bruins for Animals, willing and ready to sit down and talk about what the problems are and how to fix them, and perhaps, in the end, realizing that differences of opinion are not just healthy, but important.  If no one questioned science, no good science would get done.  But please, stay away from the children.

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Cleft Lip and Palate Reconstruction

By: Sonya Chitra Subash

What is a cleft lip and palate? Most commonly signified by a ‘harelip’, or slight gaping holes in the roof of the mouth, cleft lip and palate is a benign genetic birth defect affecting approximately one in every seven hundred children born in accordance to the Cleft Lip and Palate Association. Asians are the most affected, while African- Americans are least affected. Research being conducted by the Cleft Lip and Palate Association is still in progress to understand the main underlying reasons. For the births occurring in developed countries, a simple set of procedures is enough to fix this nonfatal defect. However, in developing countries, a child born with such a minor disfigurement is subjected to life as an outcast without proper treatment. They are shunned from the community, subjected to taunting, rejected for job opportunities, abandoned by family members, subjected to witchcraft rituals, and sometimes attacked and killed.

How does this defect occur? Sometimes during embryonic development, the upper lip and the roof of the mouth do not fuse properly. This typically happens during the first six to ten weeks of gestation. The physical severity of this birth defect can range from a minuscule to notch in the upper lip to a large groove. The severity of the physical deformity can also lead to complications with the ears, nose, and mouth. Ear infections will occur more often (due to the inability of the muscles of the palate to open the Eustachian tubes that allow for the middle air to drain, causing a rapid collection of fluid), and speech pathologists are often needed to help the child with speech development.

What is the treatment? The treatment to cure and better the quality of life is simple. Surgery to close the lip and palate together is not life threatening, and oral maxillofacial surgeons provide surgeries to fix this.

One surgical technique used is ‘bone grafting’. A small portion of bone is extracted from the patient’s hip, ribs, leg, or head and is placed in the cleft area (the bone protected by the upper lip) to introduce great support for un-erupted teeth that will grow as the child’s mouth develops after the surgery. This is usually most effective if the patient is five to six years old during the treatment. The added bone will make the gum appear more natural, and help increase the strength of the pre-maxilla (the front part of the roof of the mouth).

Older people affected have a lesser chance of having a perfectly symmetrical gum, but dentists can perform procedures using prosthetic teeth. Metallic dental bone implants are also used-the proper treatment will vary per patient. However, the cost of these procedures can be expensive, especially for those afflicted in developing countries where resources are scarce.

How can I help? There are many specialists in the US available for help with cleft palate reconstruction, and many organizations that travel to developing countries are available to aid. One organization, Operation Smile does humanitarian work with volunteers and dental specialists every year. Mission trips continually leave from the US, and anyone can help in some way. Smile Train, another organization, is in constant need of donations to keep funding its mission trips as well. We often underestimate, or don’t necessarily think about, the value of a smile. In developing countries it is worth more than it is here in the US, and volunteers are always needed to help aid these missions.

Information regarding sources and organizations in this article can be found at the following websites:

Cleft Lip and Palate Association: http://www.clapa.com/

Operation Smile: http://www.operationsmile.org/

Smile Train: http://www.smiletrain.org/

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The Fight Against Neglected Diseases – Part I

Join Elena Coupal as she investigates the world of neglected diseases, medical research, orphan drugs and the pharmaceutical industry in a multi-part series: The Fight Against Neglected Diseases.

Part I: Private-Public Partnerships

Imagine your body racked with fever and chills, shaking uncontrollably from coughs that bring up anemic blood. The parasite Plasmodium falciparum has all but destroyed your red blood cells. Your parents, both long dead from AIDS, cannot help you. A sibling quickly rushes you to the village doctor, only to be given a grim prognosis: Malaria and tuberculosis. We do not have the medicine. Sorry; we can’t help you.

In a few days your body, overcome with disease, will give up the fight. You have now become a statistic, one of millions of children who die every year from treatable, preventable diseases. These diseases, which have been all but eradicated by vaccines and treatment in industrialized nations, include malaria, tuberculosis, dengue fever, and a host of other tropical diseases.

These tropical diseases thrive in the climates south of the Sahara and in Southeast Asia, which also include some of the most poverty-stricken regions in the world. This staggering loss of life occurs predominantly among the most at-risk groups: pregnant women, whose immunity is lowered by their pregnancy; young children, whose bodies haven’t yet developed any immunity; and migrants, who are susceptible to foreign diseases they have no immunity against. The mortality statistics seem almost unreal amidst the glitz and glamour of the modern science we enjoy today.

After all, if we can find treatments for cancer and develop drugs that alleviate the effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, then what’s stopping us from removing diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis from the list of major world-wide problems? The answers all boil down to the main issue of cost.

According to the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (or DNDi):

Tropical diseases and tuberculosis account for 11.4% of the global disease burden

1,556 new drugs were approved between 1975 and 2004

However, only 21 (1.3%) were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis

Because of the extreme poverty in regions where these diseases are endemic, there is no local capital available for disease control or for the research and development of new drugs. The process of producing and distributing drugs is extremely expensive. It can cost anywhere from $400 million to $800 million to cover research and development, clinical trials, registration, manufacturing, and distribution of a new medicine.

Since the people who need these drugs the most cannot afford to pay for them, any pharmaceutical companies and organizations that provide these medicines to poorer regions do not see one cent of profit. This fact is especially problematic for big pharma companies that have obligations to their profit-seeking shareholders.

However, the arrival of public-private partnerships, or PPPs, has resulted in a multitude of benefits for all. Top scientific experts from academia and industry teaming up with non-profits and philanthropy groups provide a vast new pool of resources from which drugs can be developed and disturbed to those most in need.

Such partnerships include the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD), Johnson & Johnson with the TB Alliance, Merck with Wellcome Trust to form MSD Wellcome Trust Hilleman Laboratories, and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) which was formed from donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, just to name a few.

The corporate, for-profit organizations provide the latest technology and techniques, as well as extensive libraries of “starter molecules” for making drugs. They also provide professional advice about which projects would be best for non-profits to pursue.

Nonprofits have access to funds that do not require a return of capital. Nonprofits also have the freedom to focus on “the bigger picture,” and can gather a variety of results from the most recent clinical breakthroughs to assist and direct the process of drug discovery in the private sector. Also, partnering with a non-profit can be great PR for private corporations.

Although relatively new on the scene, PPPs have already shown early success. For instance, according to a 2005 London School of Economics report sponsored by Wellcome Trust, from 2000 to 2004 PPPs developed 46 new drug projects with only $112 million dollars, an astonishingly low number in comparison to what big pharmaceutical companies will usually spend on a similar number of projects (see the $800 million statistic above).

PPPs have a promising future, and with further collaborative efforts, will continue to succeed.

So far, PPPs have proven to be our best ally against these neglected diseases that cripple entire populations and hinder development and education efforts in unindustrialized nations. With help, support, and collaboration amongst many private, public, and philanthropic organizations, it has become more possible than ever to bring these neglected illnesses out of the shadows, so they can be conquered and eradicated.

But first you must get to know your opponents before you can fight them.

Come back for more on neglected diseases in the next few weeks!

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Food: foodsheds and addressing childhood obesity.

Rose Eveleth

Researchers at MIT and Columbia recently spent billions of dollars investigating the causes of childhood obesity.  The resulting report came to many of the same conclusions that farmers have known for years: the current food industry surrounding kids is making them both fat and unhealthy.  In October, they proposed a solution: eat more local food.  To many, this is not a surprise.  Farmers have been championing the health benefits of their locally produced food for years.

The group’s report uses a term that has become more and more popular within researchers on this issue: “food shed.”  The term comes from the concept of watersheds, defined by the EPA as “the area of land where all of the water that is under it or drains off it goes to the same place.”  Essentially, we rely on watersheds for the water we use every day.  The same concept goes for a food shed: they are the area that naturally supplies our kitchens.  Today, our food shed is huge.  The average meal consists of ingredients that have traveled a collective 2,000 miles.  (Would you be so inclined to buy such far away foods if all the labels had this?)  Only one to two percent of all food we eat is produced locally.

The major focus of the October report is the idea of Integrated Regional Foodsheds.  Working with an example in New York City, the team identified a surrounding radius that could provide food for its included community – a simple combination of how much food the surrounding area can produce and how many people need to be fed.  For many of us, eating locally is no brainer, but it’s simply not affordable for a vast number of people in the United States.  The MIT study works out some of the math on what seems to be intuitive: local foods should cost less than foods shipped across the world – because you’re not paying for them to be shipped across the world.

What’s refreshing about the joint MIT Columbia study is their set of integrated solutions to the commercialized, cheap processed food epidemic.  There is no one solution, and they have designed and co-opted several independent initiatives into the program such as lawn to farm efforts, mobile markets and the 10×10 project.  To see more about the report and their solutions, visit their website.

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