Despite steadily declining rates of cancer deaths over the past two decades, cancer remains responsible for 1 in every 6 deaths worldwide. It’s a scourge. So when, this week, an Israeli company called Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies captured the news cycle with promises of a complete cure for cancer within the year, the story caught fire.
The company’s technology is called “MuTaTo” — that's multi-target toxin. And, to judge from the news media this week, it seems vetted, verified and veering us all toward a cancer-free future. Reports began in the Jerusalem Post, but quickly took off, making their way into various Murdoch-owned publications like FOX and the New York Post and landing in local news outlets around the country and the globe.
A couple days into the fanfare, the skeptics started coming out: for one thing, as oncologist David Gorski points out in his blog “Respectful Insolence,” the claims are based on experiments with mice: no human trials have yet started. For another, they haven’t been sufficiently peer reviewed. In fact, the company won’t share its research, claiming it can’t afford the expense. The too-good-to-be-true story appears to be just that, built on PR puffery. But who can resist a good cancer cure?
With Mutato in mind, for this week’s podcast extra, we revisit our Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Health News edition, with Gary Schwitzer, publisher & founder of HealthNewsReview.org.
Live performance of British comedian Ricky Gervais filmed in London's Eventim Apollo.
I watched this in pieces over the last two evenings and finished of the tail end at lunch today.
I’ve often thought of Gervais simply as a crass entertainer, but there are so many interesting new dimensions which come out in “Humanity”, they give me newfound respect for who he is and what he’s doing now. This is far more complex than just simple comedy, he’s doing something much more significant with this particular performance.
I also haven’t laughed this hard in quite a while. Tears, literally tears. Perhaps most interesting is that he’s got a much wider range of emotions which he’s playing off of here than just the humorous.
Gervais has some really interesting philosophy hiding in here among the dark humor. He has an interesting take on comedy and what it does and doesn’t target. The bit at the end on social media was particularly interesting. His take on “The Commons” is quite solid and is something I don’t suspect many could expound upon so eloquently.
During the portion in which he talks about his favorite Twitter response ever, he looked down at his phone to quote the tweet. I was reminded of some of the comedy greats I’ve seen at clubs late at night reading out of their beat up notebooks to try out new material. For a moment I thought, “perhaps Gervais is trying out some new material live here.” If it’s the case, then he was genius, though I suspect now that it was just a useful prop to add to the narrative of the joke. Either way, just brilliant. I wonder when we’ll see comics at clubs reading off of phones instead of the old spiral bounds? I wonder if it’ll play an better than the index card or notebook?
His closer with the story about his mum’s death and the wonderful prank on the poor vicar put a wonderfully fine point on the entire piece. It is humanity indeed. If there were a god, I’m sure he’d bless Ricky Gervais.
Epigenetics refers to information transmitted during cell division other than the DNA sequence per se, and it is the language that distinguishes stem cells from somatic cells, one organ from another, and even identical twins from each other. In contrast to the DNA sequence, the epigenome is relatively susceptible to modification by the environment as well as stochastic perturbations over time, adding to phenotypic diversity in the population. Despite its strong ties to the environment, epigenetics has never been well reconciled to evolutionary thinking, and in fact there is now strong evidence against the transmission of so-called “epi-alleles,” i.e. epigenetic modifications that pass through the germline.
However, genetic variants that regulate stochastic fluctuation of gene expression and phenotypes in the offspring appear to be transmitted as an epigenetic or even Lamarckian trait. Furthermore, even the normal process of cellular differentiation from a single cell to a complex organism is not understood well from a mathematical point of view. There is increasingly strong evidence that stem cells are highly heterogeneous and in fact stochasticity is necessary for pluripotency. This process appears to be tightly regulated through the epigenome in development. Moreover, in these biological contexts, “stochasticity” is hardly synonymous with “noise”, which often refers to variation which obscures a “true signal” (e.g., measurement error) or which is structural, as in physics (e.g., quantum noise). In contrast, “stochastic regulation” refers to purposeful, programmed variation; the fluctuations are random but there is no true signal to mask.
This workshop will serve as a forum for scientists and engineers with an interest in computational biology to explore the role of stochasticity in regulation, development and evolution, and its epigenetic basis. Just as thinking about stochasticity was transformative in physics and in some areas of biology, it promises to fundamentally transform modern genetics and help to explain phase transitions such as differentiation and cancer.
This workshop will include a poster session; a request for poster titles will be sent to registered participants in advance of the workshop.
Adam Arkin (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory)
Gábor Balázsi (SUNY Stony Brook)
Domitilla Del Vecchio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Michael Elowitz (California Institute of Technology)
Andrew Feinberg (Johns Hopkins University)
Don Geman (Johns Hopkins University)
Anita Göndör (Karolinska Institutet)
John Goutsias (Johns Hopkins University)
Garrett Jenkinson (Johns Hopkins University)
Andre Levchenko (Yale University)
Olgica Milenkovic (University of Illinois)
Johan Paulsson (Harvard University)
Leor Weinberger (University of California, San Francisco (UCSF))
Coffee is about as likely as anything to cause cancer, so putting up a sign about it isn't really going to help anyone but the "sign lobby."
Apparently Starbucks has learned well from big tobacco and they’re getting ahead of the whole cancer thing whether or not they really need to. This morning while picking up my morning tea (and apple fritter), I ran across a Prop 65 warning very prominently posted–ironically above the aspartame, though that wasn’t mentioned specifically in the notice–about the cancer risks of acrylamide.
I’ve read a fair amount about acrylamide in the past two years following the news that just about anything cooked or fried has small trace amounts of the substance, so I know there’s not too much to be worried about. The biggest “scare” was apparently over french fries–particularly those served at fast food restaurants. Apparently after the scare blew over the general public – the subject just didn’t seem to catch any traction aside from a few snippets in the mainstream press–Starbucks has decided to get out ahead of this “non-issue” just in case. (I will admit that the State of California has actually sued and won against major corporations under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Health and Safety Code section 25249.6, also known as “Proposition 65,” that businesses must provide persons with a “clear and reasonable warning” before exposing individuals to these chemicals which includes acrylamide.)
As an aside, I will mention that placing the warning on the condiments counter which I visit only after I’ve made my purchase seems a bit after-the-fact – it would have done me more good in front of the cash register. For the ambulance chasers, this is probably great “grounds”–pun intended–for a major class action.
While I laud their savvy general counsel, do we really need this type of notice in our lives? Humankind has been living with acrylamide cancer risk since the dawn of the Holocene when man first learned to use fire to cook, is there any reason to worry about it now?
I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s bookThe World Until Yesterday and some of the things that primitive societies simply learn to live with, but which our overly litigious society just can’t seem to deal with logically. Simple things didn’t fool primitive societies like: don’t sleep under trees that look like they are dead or possibly rotting–just in case the tree falls over and kills you in the night while you’re sleeping. Yet somehow some of us need additional warnings about our coffee from McDonald’s being served hot or cautions not to operate our toasters in the bathtub.
Next I fear that we’ll discover we need signs telling us that pinecones might fall out of pine trees.
I sure hope that Henny Penny copyrighted, registered, and patented everything about the concept of “The Sky is Falling” as I’m sure it’ll have made her the richest chicken in the world.