Trusted Sources

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reminds us that the public at large believes in the results of science based on their trust in scientists and, quite often, those that communicate the science.

The comic also shows how hazardous it can be to abuse that trust. This is why efforts to hold the institutions through which we do science accountable – like Retraction Watch, Rep. Speier’s HR6161, SAFE, critiquing of the publish-or-perish system, p-hacking, journal profiteering, and embargo abuse – are vital. It needs to be clear in public forums that we take that trust seriously and are more committed to protecting the integrity of the practice of science than to protecting individuals who violate that trust to maintain an illusion.

The Genetic Nightmare of Diabetes

After 10 years of genomic studies, our understanding of the genetic architecture of diabetes is… still a mess. Or, if you prefer, a nightmare. That’s the message of the most extensive Type 2 Diabetes GWAS to date. Looking for rare genetic variants linked with diabetes, researchers performed whole-genome or exome sequencing on 15,000 people… and came up with nothing new.

This is an important negative result, in that it advances our knowledge of the genetic architecture of diabetes – odds are that many common genetic variants, each with individual small effects, contribute to one’s total genetic risk for the disease. It also illustrates just how hard it will be to realize the goals of personalized medicine. So let’s avoid the hype when we talk about how genomics is going to revolutionize medicine.

I explain the study and its implications in my piece this week at Pacific Standard.  Go read it to learn more about the challenges ahead that face personalized medicine.

Apocalypse 1913: Adrift In A Hostile Cosmos

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (1913)

415px-Strandus-1913-05End of the world narratives are typically about a fight for survival – people fight for food, shelter, and safety as the asteroid, pandemic plague, or zombie hordes threaten to wipe out human life. This was just as true of SF a century ago as it is today: In 1912, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague featured armed Berkeley professors, holed up in the chemistry building as a plague swept away civilization; while Garrett Serviss’ The Second Deluge tells of a thousand lucky survivors who, in a modern ark, escape a world-wide flood.

The next year, Arthur Conan Doyle also published a novel about a group of hardy survivors. But the terms of survival in The Poison Belt are much more ironic: Professor Challenger and his fellow adventurers, who had fought off dinosaurs and ape-men on a remote South American plateau in Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World, now confront the extinction of human life as passive observers, watching the destruction of humanity from the window of the “charmingly feminine sitting room” of Professor Challenger’s wife. Continue reading

Off-the-shelf drugs against Zika

As with the ebola outbreak on 2014, we’re facing the Zika pandemic without any drugs or vaccines.  Several rapidly developed Zika vaccines are now entering clinical trial, but we urgently need effective drugs that we can give to infected pregnant women, to protect their unborn children from the awful birth defects that the virus can cause.

Drug development takes a long time. However, one group at the University of Texas Galveston tried a short-cut: test drugs that are already approved by the FDA to see if any can prevent Zika infections. They tested 700 drugs in vitro (i.e., i cells in a petri dish) and found 20 that showed some efficacy in different cell types. Some of these are safe to give to pregnant women, and at least one, ivernectin is a cheap anti-parasite drug already taken by millions of people world-wide.

Obviously whether any of these drugs are effective in actual people is an open question. But the beauty of this is that the safety of these drugs has already been tested. We can start enrolling people in clinical trials to test their efficacy now.

I wrote more about this story over at Pacific Standard – go give it a read.

When your fortune cookie falk to reckon with the problem of the argument from false premises #finchstagram

Photo by Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA) via Instagram