GPs have a label for people like you and me. People who Google things. People who come to the appointment, armed with the information already. They call us the Very Informed Patient or VIP. Personally, I quite like that. It could have been worse. We used to be known as the ‘PITAP’. But that was before GPs were under pressure to tick boxes for numbers of patients seen, weight checked, cholesterol checked, blood pressure controlled and stop smoking!
A BBC Horizon programme presented by Michael Mosley. This programme explored the role of diet and nutrition in ageing.
At Cornell University researchers are studying a genetically modified mouse strain, which exhibits longevity (longer life) with a calorie restricting diet. This work has been extended to human study at Fontana Washington University. Here, they have set up a long-term study of dietary intervention. The principal investigator was quite confident that the people undertaking this approach are a new species. I doubt this very much. Participants are restricted to 1,900 calories a day, usually eaten at breakfast as a huge bowl of fruit. Time will tell if this approach does indeed lead to a longer life, but if positive results were needed, age-related tests were conducted. These included assessment of balance and reaction times, as well as blood tests for metabolic markers, and levels of body fat. Mr Mosley’s assessment was pronounced as ‘not good for his age’, but the balance and reaction time tests are both subjective and can be improved with practice. More alarming was the absolute declaration that following the calorie restriction programme for just one year will result in a reversal of disease progression. In fact, the researcher went on to say that after following the diet for 10 years, J (a volunteer) would never develop a stroke or heart attack.
The truth is that in order to fully assess the risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer, we would need to sequence every bit of DNA in every person in the world, follow those people from birth to death, and analyse their lifestyles for diet, exercise and environmental factors. Then, we might be able to say who will die from heart attack, or not. Some research, including my own, has identified important genes, which contribute to the risk. I have also found out that the normal variation of these genes, interacting with certain environmental factors, like stress, injury or infection, can affect the way the body responds. So, you see, it is a very complex picture, and not simply down to calorie restriction.
Professor Valter Longo, from the University of Southern California does add some science to the discussion. His research centres around an important metabolic protein, Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF1). Reduced levels of IGF1 in the blood have been associated with slowing cellular metabolism (the so called ‘go,go’ mode), increased repair of DNA damage and protection from age-related illness, in a genetically modified laboratory mouse strain.
Ex vivo research (that is, in cells taken from the animal’s body) have shown that cells in ‘go’ mode are more susceptible to cancer, as they do not show efficient cellular repair. Studies in humans have shown that calorie restriction together with a low protein diet leads to reduced circulating IGF1 levels in the blood. The mechanism of action for this is that as glucose (blood sugar) is depleted in the body, the body (in particular the large muscles) start burning fat for fuel. The liver stops or slows production of IGF1, pushing the cells into repair mode. This is not a happy state of affairs for the body of an active man or woman. Prolonged fasting can be dangerous and should only be done under medical guidance. Extreme metabolic changes can occur with short fasting protocols too. Proponents of the alternate day fast or the 5-2 fast regimes often report that they are unable to exercise on fast days due to dizziness and weakness.
The main tenet of the piece is portion control, which I endorse. It’s no secret that if you eat less and move more, your body will be stronger and healthier, provided of course that you maintain adequate nutrition. And the emergence of these fasting diets for sustained weight loss should be viewed with some skepticism.
There was no discussion about the role of our genetic make-up and ageing, or longevity. Yet, many of us will know people who live long and when asked the secret, simply say eat well, exercise a bit, and have fun. Sounds good to me.
Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.
Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.
We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.
So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.
“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.
It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.
When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.
In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience – be they the community, the government or the world.
You raise your voice, not your fist.
I went to Medical School in 1987. It was an incredible experience, crammed full of learning from inspirational Professors at the peak of their careers. My stand-out memory is the first day of Gross Anatomy. Faced with dozens of cadavers in shrouds, fresh-faced students in crisp, clean white coats, and that smell – I couldn’t wait to get started. Such a privilege.
Each precious body had been donated to medical research, to help train doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. We stood next to our allocated body, four students in a group, and recited a modified Hippocratic Oath. We were to dissect the body over the academic year, 565 hours of dissection, in detail, covering all organ systems, blood vessels, nerves and the brain. Our bible for the year was Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, in three volumes. Professor Tobias and Professor Arnold were the big beasts of Anatomy. We were in awe of them. They were known affectionately as PVT and JCA (behind their backs of course)!
Getting started was a hand-trembling affair, guided by this illustration. Skin preserved in embalming fluid is very tough. But once you’re in, you’re in – and the delights of the human body were ours to explore. Over the weeks and months, we committed to memory all the arteries, veins, nerves and bones (oh, my poor parents had that box of bones in their living room); using mnemonics to remember the long lists. For example, Peter And Paul Masturbated So Much Their Balls Shrank refers to the branches of one of the thoracic arteries (I wish I could remember which one)! I can remember, though, that this one refers to the twelve cranial nerves: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina Very Happily (or something very like it). The point is, we were drunk on anatomy for that year. We were walking encyclopaedia of lists of body parts, our text books were marked in wax pencil (I still have one I used in 1987), and nobody would share the lift with us because the smell permeated our clothes and hair. We knew it and we didn’t care. We were doing something that not many people ever get to do. It would shape our lives in the future. Some would go on to be world class surgeons, some physicians, sports scientists, pharmacists. I decided on a career in research.
Who knows how a career will turn out. I didn’t even do Science at school. I was expected to study Languages at University. I’m grateful to a Biology teacher for showing me something different, and changing my life. She asked me to help her clear out the cupboard in the lab. What we didn’t find in there. And lurking at the back, in a dark jar, was the most gorgeous pig foetus. We changed the preserving fluid, to reveal the tiny, perfect animal; when was he put in there, kept for me to find? I was hooked.
And so, standing in the dissection hall, several years later, in the basement at Medical School, I knew I was in the right place. I grasped the scalpel with both hands and made the first cut. Nine months later, the Technician was standing over the cadaver we had been working on. It approaching the final Lesson – the brain. He used a tiny, whirring saw to remove the cranium. He revealed a clean, shiny brain in situ. In order to complete the study, we had to remove the brain, with all the cranial nerves in tact. I had the smallest hands and I put them on either side of the brain, inside the skull. I tugged gently and felt around the base of the brain, to free the nerves from their restraints. A little more tugging, and I had the brain in my hands. We prepared the dissection and made 1cm slices through the brain, sectioning it in cross-section. I have never forgotten that moment. And neither will countless other medical students. That brain, sectioned, preserved and displayed can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum at Wits Medical School.
Gross anatomy? I don’t think so. Stunning, wondrous anatomy, is more like it.
In general terms, we expect that people who ask our permission, who require our consent, will have the morals and ethics to respect our wishes and do the right thing. Recently however, I have seen a few examples where, frankly, the people concerned have the morals of a snake. I’ll say no more on that, but it prompted me to think more widely about these terms; ethics, morals, consent, permission.
In my own field of life science research, no research may be undertaken without a prior favourable ethical opinion. It used be ethical approval, which implied that a peer-reviewed process had taken place, and an important group of senior people had carefully considered the application and deemed it ethical to conduct the research. Now, it simply means that a committee has spent a few minutes of the agenda discussing the merits of the work, and no responsibility or blame can be put their way should the experiment turn out not to be ethical, either in its design or in the outcomes. A matter of semantics, perhaps, but important none-the-less.
Important because many of the subjects for my research are human volunteers who trust us, the scientists, to do the right thing. Now, I don’t want to put anyone off contributing to a research project; we do still need to do research using human subjects. But I do want to point out that the administration of the rules is not what it should be. To my knowledge, there is no enforcement of the consent. I have seen inspections. I have seen paper records. I know that biological material collected years ago is still lurking in the bottom of freezers in research laboratories. Consents and research records belonging to PhD students who have long-since moved on lingering on dusty bookshelves in study rooms. There is almost no way of knowing which material should be destroyed, ethical opinion and consents having long-ago expired. And that’s just in small university laboratories. Surely in large pharmaceutical and biotech organisations the record keeping and ‘policing’ of the research consents is more robust?
Well, yes it is, and that results in a different problem. Large organisations who embark on long term research require consent from participants to be able to follow up on the outcomes of the research over a very long period of time, decades in some cases. With changes in technology, particularly in genetic research, where even five years ago the cost of this work would have prohibited it, that is no longer the case. Cost are down, through-put is up. In short, scientists can analyse more data, more quickly, at much lower costs. If the material already exists, if the methodologies are the same, there are also no start-up costs. Results could be coming within days. That means that if you volunteered ten years ago, donated a tube of your blood, approximately 10ml, and gave scientists permission to keep cells, plasma and DNA, they will still have all those bits of you in storage and on file.
I mentioned genetic research, for this is where I am most concerned. When you donated that small amount of blood all those years ago, you were probably young, in your twenties (most lab volunteers are), and too young to be showing any sign of disease. Your parents would have been young too; too young in most cases to have cancer or heart disease. You wouldn’t yet have had children either. And now, what if you are told that scientists have just worked out that your DNA shows a variation recently found to be associated with cancer – would you want to know? What would you do about it? Cancer cannot be treated if it hasn’t formed a tumour yet. This is the proposal of researchers, owners of these so-called ‘bio banks’, because original research is too expensive and largely unfunded. Would you still give your consent for your material to be used?
I believe that material collected more than five years ago should either be destroyed or re-consented. Yes, that will cost money, but it keeps science honest and transparent. It makes sure that scientists’ personal ethics and morals are not tested. It introduces a check that the material we think is there, has been stored correctly and will be useful in the research. Very often, biological material degrades over time and is useless. Better then to destroy it.
And finally, I must reveal here that I never allowed my cells or DNA to be stored. I have never used my own blood, cells or DNA in any experiment I have conducted. I do not want to know that I have a particular genetic variation. Until scientists are clever enough to re-program my genetic material, there are some things not worth knowing. Of course, there are some conditions for which there are extremely good genetic tests, and with the correct counselling, it is very helpful to do these tests. But these tests have made the transition from research to clinical application. We can’t change what has gone before, but we can make sure that we are informed about the future. Research must be done, human biological material must be used for research wherever possible. Don’t take ethics, morals, consent and permission for granted in science, or anywhere else for that matter.
Animal experimentation is always a sensitive subject, whichever side of the fence you sit. When I started out in medical research, almost twenty-three years ago, animals were used in all sorts of experiments, from radical surgical therapies to shampoo testing.
I personally witnessed some horrors in the name of science. It was fascinating stuff though, particularly the work done on developing novel surgical strategies for strokes, heart attacks and bone regeneration after motor vehicle accidents. I can’t say that I enjoyed seeing rabbits being used to test shampoo or make-up, and I’m happy that this rarely happens these days. I fully support campaigns against animal testing.
But, I also support those pioneering scientists who over the years have used animals big and small to test their hypotheses and make huge strides in science and medicine.
For example, life-saving surgery performed daily in many hospitals, putting a stent in a coronary artery, a main blood vessel supplying the heart, following a heart attack, would not have been developed if not tried in animals first. This surgery saves hundreds of lives every year. People who go on to live very productive lives after heart attack. Surely this is a good thing?
More recently, I have seen groundbreaking work carried out in genetically modified mice. These mice have been bred without a particular receptor (simply put, this is a grabber for chemicals such as drugs), which is believed to be key in addiction. This work describes how people are genetically pre-disposed to becoming addicted to cocaine or heroin. And it will help to provide strategies for treating a lost generation drug of addicts across Europe. The cost benefit of this treatment runs to millions of Euro’s.*
There is sometimes an argument for using alternatives to animal testing. I always prefer to use non-animal experiments. In fact, I have not worked with animals in twenty years, preferring instead to recruit human volunteers for my research. This is more difficult than it sounds. It often involves drawing repeated small amounts of blood from which I prepare DNA, the genetic material of life. And volunteers are understandably concerned about what scientists might do with that information. Consent is not required for animal experiments.
But ethics is required for types of experimentation. Morals and standards on ethics are required at all times. Public scrutiny is key to this as well, which is why I think it is important to talk openly about the work we do on animals. It is not sufficient to say that a committee of academics and vets approved the work, therefore it’s OK to do it. No, scientists must be called to account at all times.
The scientists who do this work conduct their experiments under the strictest conditions and scrutiny. Far from being hidden away, animal experimentation is a transparent necessity of science. The public has the right to know what experiments are being done in their name.
The problem is that there are some people who are so passionate about not using animals for science and research, that they endanger the lives of others. And that means that we cannot always talk about it openly. It’s a conundrum to which I don’t have a solution, just a plea to both sides. Maintain a dialogue, keep an open mind. Be respectful of each other. Scientists, especially in the UK, who use animals in their research are not evil people, taking over the world. I admit, there are less scrupulous researchers in other countries, but here in the UK, animal-lovers and concerned campaigners should be re-assured that the work is done with the very best intentions, in the best facilities, under the tightest regulations and conditions.
The sad fact is, that animal models are still needed for progress in many human diseases. Whilst it is true that whole animals such as mice or rabbits do not adequately represent the whole body situation in human beings, animal organ systems and cells are extremely useful for science and research. Non-animal models such as immortalized cell lines derived from humans, can only answer one question at a time, because these cells are taken outside the body and are not subjected to the same complex environment.
My mother died of cancer. She died from a form of lung cancer, for which there is no cure. She was sixty-six years old. She was too young to die. If scientists wanted to test drug, or design an experiment to better understand the disease, I would be all for it. Wouldn’t you?
*Note: please understand that I cannot describe experiments in detail or identify scientists here.
Mind-body interactions include the techniques of relaxation, meditation, music therapy, hypnotherapy and other complementary therapies. Many of us have used some of these techniques to help with a single symptom such as anxiety, stress, or to quit smoking. In chronic illness such as cancer, patients often present with a complex pattern of symptoms, including anxiety, pain and sleep disturbance.
Hypnotherapy in particular, has proven benefits in smoking cessation, weight control and treating phobias. But it is also useful in maintaining a positive outlook on life, mainly by changing perceptions. Shortly after my mother died from lung cancer, her hypnotherapist and I wrote a short article on the benefits of hypnotherapy in chronic and terminal illness. This was first published in the newsletter of the Spirit Fitness Club, Guildford. I reproduce part of the article below (Hypnotherapy with Stephen Rigby), by kind permission of Stephen Rigby. We felt that there was more to write, however, and I have been looking into recent research papers* to further substantiate our (largely) anecdotal evidence, and to show that there is good evidence for the use of complementary therapies in patients with chronic illness.
The Marie Curie Cancer Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne, published a small pilot study, looking at the role of hypnotherapy in the palliative care setting, by relieving stress and helping patients to cope with their illness and the prospect of dying. The audit established the demand for a hypnotherapy service, and the practicalities of providing such a service in a busy centre. It also identified the benefits of hypnotherapy, as perceived by patients and therapist. The study was conducted over 5 months, involving just eleven clients (seven staff and four patients), using questionnaires. The main findings were a unanimous positive coping and relaxation benefit, with 82% of clients reporting it had assisted in improving the presenting problem, and 91% felt it had been of benefit in general. Similar findings were published in 2008, where mind-body therapies, not just hypnotherapy, were found to improve cancer survivorship. Two studies carried out more recently further suggest strategies and methods for the use of hypnosis in complex oncology.
Other studies have looked at the role of integrative complementary therapies, including mind-body techniques, on specific cancer-related neuropathic pain, a complex physical and psychosocial pain; indeed in all types of chronic pain, hypnotherapy is shown to be effective on a variety of pain outcomes.
Another aspect of cancer treatment is the sleep disturbance many patients experience. Hypnotherapy can effectively help manage the pain-sleep disturbance cycle in people with cancer, by helping with relaxation. A good night’s sleep is fundamental to well-being, for both patients and families. A report in 2010 found that further studies on mind-body interactions in the treatment of complex sleep disturbance could help patients with all aspects of the pain-fatigue-sleep disturbance cluster.
In a specific case of the management of leukaemia, researchers found that patients were looking for complementary therapies to be used in conjunction with traditional cancer treatments to reduce side-effects of the drugs, or as a coping mechanism during treatments. In this study mind-body interactions such as self-hypnosis, meditation and breath awareness such as is practised in yoga, massage and reflexology, acupuncture, and a healthy diet and exercise were analysed and found to be useful for these patients. Just a word of caution here, botanical extracts and vitamin supplements may interfere with cancer treatment, so ask before using these.
And finally, in a randomized trial of mind-body interactions on a positive/negative effect during breast cancer radiotherapy, forty women were randomized to receive either cognitive-behavioural therapy and hypnosis or standard care, and their analysis showed a reduction in the negative effect and an increased positive effect, which was significantly more intense. Patients receiving this therapy also had significantly more positive days during their treatment, and the authors conclude that mind-body interaction therapies have the potential to significantly improve the experience of women breast cancer patients receiving radiotherapy.
It seems obvious to me that these complementary approaches together with traditional cancer treatment should be more widely offered to patients during treatment, both as outpatient chemotherapy and radiotherapy patients, but also as inpatients in hospital. Sometimes, as a cancer patient, despite all your best efforts, a hospital stay is necessary. That in itself is traumatic, but it shouldn’t have to be without complementary therapy too. By writing this blog, I am hoping to raise awareness of the possibilities, and to encourage patients and their families to ask for more help along the cancer journey. It can make life so much easier.
*You can search the Pubmed database for these and many more science and medicine topics.
Hypnotherapy with Stephen Rigby
Ask somebody how they feel about being hypnotised and you will get a wide range of responses – fear being one of them. Yet, without knowing it, everyone reading this article is likely to utilise the hypnotic state every time they visit the gym – that music you hear may be just music but it helps you to get into “the zone” of heightened performance. I am a hypnotherapist and I use hypnosis in conjunction with other therapeutic techniques to teach my clients how to utilise that high performance state to overcome habits, fears, weight issues, anxieties; it even helps with some medical problems (like Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Not surprisingly hypnotherapy can also be useful for improving sports performance and over the years, I have been asked by professional and Olympic standard athletes to help them improve their game.
How does hypnosis work?
Maybe because of the misrepresentation of hypnosis on stage, screen and literature the most frequent question I am asked is “How does it work?” The goal of all therapy is to create a new perspective; hypnotherapy achieves this by helping us build new mental pathways. Hypnotherapy is far more effective than other forms of therapy because it is extremely efficient at achieving perspective changes. Where people may attend other forms of therapy for months on end, I expect most people to get the change they want within four sessions using hypnotherapy.
In this first article, I am going to talk about how hypnotherapy helped one lovely lady change her perspective on life. Vivienne, the lady in question, is the late mother of Lesley Beeton, one of the members at the Spirit. Here is what Lesley says about how hypnotherapy helped Vivienne.
Lesley talks about how hypnotherapy helped
“Mom was extremely ill and there was no cure for her cancer. She was very afraid of her diagnosis, devastated by the prognosis, and felt unable to see any positives in her life. We knew that Mom needed to come to terms with her disease, to decide how to live the rest of her life, and to tell the clinical teams how she wanted to be treated. I asked Stephen to work with Mom when conventional anti-depressant therapy was withdrawn and she was not offered any counselling. Stephen adopted a personalised approach to Mom’s needs. She was very fragile and cried a lot during the initial sessions, but she seemed much calmer to us almost from the beginning. Mom learnt to trust Stephen and enjoyed the one-to-one time, working hard to change her perspective as her disease progressed. Although she never understood how hypnotherapy worked, she acknowledged that without it she would never have achieved the insight and focus to make informed choices about dying at home or plan her funeral. She was calm and at peace, happy to be alive each day, right up until the end. On the day she died, Mom declined all drug interventions and passed away quietly at home, pain-free and in her own time.”
Peace and quiet
Most chronic illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, are complex – having more than one cause and often more than one treatment. The medical teams work very hard to treat the disease but often the patient gets trapped on a medical ‘treadmill’ without the peace and quiet they need to consider their own needs. Patients suffering with these serious conditions also have all the small niggles that rest of us do – headache, stomach upset, coughs and colds, dental pain, period pain etc, and it’s often these small things which can really bring a person down. So there is a real benefit in investing early on in diagnosis in a plan for managing ongoing symptoms, medical interventions and the emotional side effects of chronic illness – hypnotherapy can help with this.
Birth and death are two of the most dramatic events we witness as sentient bipeds. Though they have happened billions of times before and are sure to happen a billion times again, they are the explosions that punctuate the march of time. There are no more dramatic births and deaths than those of stars, and both have been photographed and sent to us this week.
In Europe, the Herschel Telescope has shed new light (so to speak) on a volatile star forming region. The Pillars of Creation are situated in the Eagle Nebula, which was first observed 17 years ago by the Hubble telescope. Spanning several light years across, the Pillars are of particular interest to astronomers as they are undergoing a burst of star formation.
The Pillars are visible to optical telescopes, but only as shadowy figures which reveal nothing of the violent processes they hide. The region has been transformed by Herschel which sees light on the infra-red spectrum, setting the pillars alight and revealing the activities within.
Aside from providing us with gorgeous images like the one above, the observation is vital for giving us clues about the birth of stars like our own sun.
Professor Glenn White, of The Open University and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, who is working on the data said: ‘The local environment in the Eagle Nebula is probably very similar to that when our own solar system formed almost 5 billion years ago – so seeing these images is a bit like using a time machine to look back at how our own solar system might have been born.”
Another revealing discovery has been made by a PhD student in Mallorca, this time concerning how stars die. On August 23rd last year, Stefan Holmes was “in the right place at the right time” (also known as the Open University’s PIRATE facility) and captured a one off image giving us new insight into the origins of supernova. The image shows M101, a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way (but with a far more boring name). Rather disappointingly, the star isn’t visible on the image. What was captured was the light escaping from the supernova, or dying star. Somehow that seems less majestic, more horrific, but that’s scientists for you. Despite a long fascination with these exploding stars, little is actually known about the type of stars that die in this way, which is why the image has caused excitement enough to be featured in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The image is hugely significant. First of all, it captured the light from the closest star explosion for decades; only 20 million light years away. (For reference, it would take over 20 000 years to travel one light year.) Not only is it a convenient few billion years of human travel away, it shows the explosion only four hours after it occurred and is the first such explosion to be available for study with modern astronomical equipment.
‘Type Ia’ supernova are exploding stars that burn brighter than a billion Suns for several weeks. The energy released is relative to the size of the star that exploded. Judging by the light captured in this image, this supernova was about 2/100 of the Sun’s size, a white dwarf.
We must rely on huge structures such as Herschel and PIRATE to supply us with wonders on this scale. Until not too long ago, it seemed like anything beyond the moon had to be captured by the same scientific wizardry, un-accesxible to us mere mortals, and sent to news agencies before any of us had a chance of having a peep. No longer! The BBC’s excellent Stargazing Live, with the ever adorable Professor Brian Cox and the equally charming Dara O’Briain, is showing amateur astronomers’ discoveries and photography alongside amazing space-scapes from machines such as Herschel. The most impressive results can be gained with a DSL camera and a decent telescope.
See? Not exactly a multi-million pound investment, but jaw droppingly stupendous nonetheless.
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela
I am often asked why I left South Africa, and 16 years on and I honestly don’t remember the exact reason. I know my husband and I were fortunate to receive an excellent education in South Africa and attended University there too. We wanted to be citizens of the world, to use our education where it was needed. I’m pleased to say that for the most part, we have been successful in this. No matter what happens in life, nobody can take away your education.
Thandulwazi* means for the love of knowledge in Zulu. Wouldn’t it be great if all pupils could go to school with those words in their hearts? Instead, as the post-grad assigned to supervise them, I see students in the final year of their science degree, who are working so hard to complete coursework, study for exams and write a dissertation, that they seem to have forgotten that they chose science for the love of knowledge. They started university full of excitement and promise and over the three years have been worn down to just wanting to get a 2:1. Some, of course, will always be enthusiastic and will want to know more than the syllabus dictates. They are challenging and fascinating people.
I had a brief exchange with Erika-Check Haydn, from Nature News, about the challenges UK universities are facing as they attempt to produce biomedical scientists equipped to face the changing environment of research. They are only just up to speed with basic molecular biology techniques. Now, the technology companies are saying we need to train bioinformaticians. These are scientists who will spend their post doc jobs sitting at a computer, nowhere near a lab, analysing millions of digital data points. Where’s the thandulwazi in that?
So much of the data produced in experiments today is digital i.e. there is no physical picture of the result for us to examine.The peer-review process of publication in reputable journals should be able to put the data through the ringer, but sometimes the work is so specialist it can be difficult for outsiders to follow. The very nature of digital data is that it can be amended. The pressure to publish is a constant threat to researchers, and it can mean that research questions may not be stringently tested. I’m not saying that is what happened in the following examples but, questions will be raised if the data cannot be reproduced independently. While 2011 saw some incredible scientific breakthroughs, from the colour of meteorites to the secrets of aging (in mice, at least), it also saw two low points in science reporting.
Two research papers are in question at this time. The first is the finding that a murine leukaemia or related virus (MLV) was detected in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, as the number of samples was limited and the data not reproducible, the authors had no choice but to retract their publication. That’s not to say they aren’t right. They simply need to find another way to prove it to their peers.
The second paper is more topical. Its focus is stem cell lineage and it was published in the journal Blood. The researchers acknowledge that some of the data may not reflect the published data analysis. This paper, was published in 2008 and cited 13 times in other papers. It could be argued that although there were errors in assembling the manuscript for publication, the authors stand by their findings and the interpretation thereof.
So, where does that leave the rest of us, struggling through to try and publish our blood, sweat and tears? I think it leaves us a little tainted in the public eye, and we must work harder to make sure our science stands up to rigorous scrutiny by our peers. As research funding decreases, the strongest research questions and protocols will rise to the top. Let’s hope that exciting research, and the love of science, does not drop away altogether.
*The St Stithian Foundation was set up to provide support for a Saturday school called Thandulwazi for pupils struggling to find a way complete their school education. It also supports teacher training. The Thandulwazi Trust is a Maths and Science Academy based in Johannesburg, South Africa.