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What do your social media posts say about you?

Recent posts from our Blog - Tue, 11/22/2016 - 11:24

We are certainly well aware that whatever we post on social media has an affect on the way people perceive us. But imagine if the type, frequency and even grammar of our posts could affect the services we receive? Imagine if every key strike impacted the type of insurance you receive? Well this actually happened. Last week. Well, fine, it almost happened but the fact that we were almost there is crazy enough. Admiral Insurance, a company based out of the UK, announced the launch of “firstcarquote”, a service offered to people who were buying or driving their first car. And how would the rates be calculated? By looking at these people’s Facebook profiles, that’s how. A profile with a post consisting of lists and/or short sentences served to indicate that the particular individual was conscientious and therefore assumed to be a safer driver. Needless to say, this plan never launched due to an outcry from Facebook users. (Most probably, Facebook users whose posts largely consisted of many an exclamation point, thereby making these individuals appear “overconfident”, according to “firstcarquote” standards).

I now can’t help but wonder…

  1. How
  2. Would
  3. I
  4. Score?
Categories: OSS Blog

A Cure for Multiple Sclerosis?

From Our Contributors - Tue, 11/15/2016 - 22:17

A research study published June 2016 in the prestigious journal, The Lancet, details a very risky but effective cure for patients with aggressive multiple sclerosis (1). In multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system attacks its own insulating material called myelin which usually covers nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. There is currently no cure, but symptoms may be managed through the use of medications that manage inflammation and inhibit the immune system to dampen further demyelinating damage. Symptoms vary among individuals but can include numbness, weakness in the limbs, loss of balance, fatigue, and blurred vision. More severe cases can involve paralysis. The medical procedure described in The Lancet relies on the harvesting of a patient's own hematopoietic stem cells to be used as grafts after almost completely destroying the patient's existing immune system. This autologous hematopoietic stem-cell harvest, which selects for CD34+ progenitor cells, is taken from the patient after stimulation (mobilization) to increase the numbers of circulating myeloid stem cells (2). This is done with the chemotherapy drug, cyclophosphamide, and filgrastim, a granulocyte colony-stimulating factor analog which promotes the rapid increase and differentiation of a type of white blood cell called granulocytes. A cure to MS is possible through the ablation of the current faulty immune system of MS, and the subsequent replacement with hematopoietic stem cells that can then become healthy immune blood cells.

The study began in 2000, and the paper describes Phase 2 of the study at three hospitals in Canada. Twenty-four patients participated, and one has died during the study due to liver complications. The treatment is initially quite toxic, and strong chemotherapy drugs are given to destroy the immune cells. After immune cells are rendered null through the use of busulfan, cyclophosphamide, and rabbit anti-thymocyte globulin, the patient is left vulnerable to infection. The chemotherapy is toxic to sperm or eggs, and women enter early menopause. Hair and fingernails fall off. Yet, MS patients desperately searching for a cure have chosen this option and experienced not only a cessation of symptoms, but also some recovery from previous MS-induced damage. Patients were followed up for up to thirteen years after autologous hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation, and even though they were not on any medications, they were found to be free of relapses and without any new brain lesions in MRI scans.

Interestingly, this process of “resetting” the immune system was found to be effective for MS quite accidentally. Initially, people with both leukaemia and MS were being treated for leukaemia, a cancer of the white blood immune cells. This cancer starts in the bone marrow, so autologous blood stem cells from the bone marrow are first collected and rid of any cancerous cells. The cells are then reintroduced into the body as a graft to elicit new, healthy immune cells after the existing, cancer-ridden immune system is destroyed by toxic chemotherapy. The results were found to be effective not only for leukaemia, but for MS as well. It is hoped that a similar approach can be used to cure other autoimmune diseases such as Crohn's disease, scleroderma, and lupus. The risk associated with deleting a person's entire immune system is great, but by adjusting the balance between toxicity and maximal therapeutic results, a safer medical intervention can be found. Larger trials can be conducted to determine the best dosage and effectiveness so that hopes can be high for people suffering from MS and other debilitating autoimmune diseases.

  Read more
Categories: From Our Contributors

Hepatitis A From Frozen Berries

From Our Contributors - Tue, 11/15/2016 - 22:16

On April 15, 2016, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) announced a food recall warning regarding the possible contamination with Hepatitis A, a viral liver disease, of the frozen fruit product, “Nature's Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend”. Canadians have been advised that the food recall is in effect in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador, where the product has been sold. As of April 22, 2016, there are eleven related Hepatitis A cases in three provinces (1): Ontario (8 cases), Quebec (2 cases), and Newfoundland and Labrador (1 case).

While it is frightening to know that Hepatitis A can be contracted by eating frozen berries, a product that is supposed to be healthy, coming into contact with hepatitis A can be quite easy. Hepatitis A is usually linked with the lack of potable water and inadequate sanitation,  and the virus is spread mainly by the faecal-oral route. It can be acquired from any food and drinks prepared by a person who is infected, as an  infected person can carry, due to improper hygiene, traces of their faeces when preparing refreshments. Shellfish derived from waters containing sewage can also carry hepatitis A. The frozen berries sold at Costco in Canada were at some point contaminated with hepatitis A from at least one infected worker (during harvest, manufacturing or processing) who was handling the berries, and who did not take preventative hygienic measures such as frequent hand-washing with soap and water, and the use of gloves. After infection with hepatitis A, symptoms usually reveal themselves two to seven weeks after viral infection. Fever, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, jaundice, dark urine, vomiting, and fatigue are all symptoms. Although cases usually last one to two weeks, a few severe cases can last several months before recovery, and some people can die from liver failure. People with pre-existing liver conditions are at a greater risk of severe illness. Older people tend to get sicker than younger people after infection.The disease is not chronic (there is usually no permanent liver damage), and lifetime immunity is acquired either from recovery after infection, or through immunization with the hepatitis A vaccine.

The hepatitis A virus, a picornavirus, is of an icosahedral shape and does not contain an envelope. It possesses a single-stranded RNA packaged in a protein capsid. There are three different numbered human genotypes of the virus, but type IA is the most commonly occurring. Genetic sequencing of the virus can reveal which molecular subtype of the virus is associated with a particular outbreak (2), thus narrowing down unassociated cases of infection. To determine whether infection has occurred, a blood test to look for IgM anti-hepatitis A antibodies, a particular immune response, can detect the virus as early as two weeks after the initial infection.

Known as a “traveller's disease”, hepatitis A is usually associated with countries that are less developed, but it does and can occur in Canada. In industrialized countries, outbreaks of hepatitis A are often linked to contaminated produce (3). During March 2012, there was a small outbreak of hepatitis A in British Columbia, Canada that was traced to pomegranate seeds in a frozen fruit product (4). April 2013 saw more than 70 cases of hepatitis A infection in four Nordic countries (5,6). In the United States, there were 165 confirmed cases of hepatitis A infection found across 10 states, in 2013 (7). This outbreak was traced to pomegranate arils found in a frozen berry product sold at Costco, and 44% of the infected patients were hospitalized. Frozen fruit can last for up to a year in the store, and hepatitis A can incubate for up to 50 days, so a hepatitis A outbreak is often detected only after many people have been infected (8). Case-control studies, where patients with (case) and without (control) a disease, such as hepatitis A, are compared retrospectively for frequency of exposure to a risk factor (such as the contaminated frozen fruit), and through this study method the source of the outbreak can be unraveled.

Costco is publicly offering free vaccination clinics to affected individuals of this recent 2016 outbreak, as vaccination can prevent the disease symptoms from occurring if given within two weeks of exposure (9). There are two options for post-exposure prophylaxis of hepatitis A. The first is the vaccine injection, which is an inactivated version of the virus. The second is immunoglobulin (IG), which is injected and consists of antibodies which fight the virus to prevent infection. It is a blood product produced from paid donors. An exposed individual who may be allergic to the vaccine may opt for the IG. A study comparing the two options found that immunoglobulin was slightly more effective than the vaccine (10). However, the vaccine offers a lifetime immunity, whereas the response of immunoglobulin against hepatitis A is only for three months after the IG administration-subsequent exposure to hepatitis A can still result in an infection. Individuals can get a pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination, which renders permanent immunity before any exposure, and travellers to countries where hepatitis A is endemic are required to receive the vaccination before leaving to their destination.

The recent 2016 hepatitis A outbreak in Canada from frozen fruit is only one of several similar outbreaks that have occurred in the past in different industrialized countries. Hepatitis A is spread through the faecal-oral route, and although it is more common in less developed nations where poor sanitation conditions are prevalent, improper hygiene during food handling can cause an outbreak.  Identifying the specific molecular subtype of hepatitis A can help trace which cases are associated with a particular outbreak. It is recommended that anyone handling food take proper precautions in food safety in order to prevent further hepatitis A outbreaks. If worried, one should obtain a pre-exposure vaccination to acquire permanent immunity to the virus.

Read more
Categories: From Our Contributors

Naturally Trained, Medical Pains

From Our Contributors - Tue, 11/15/2016 - 22:15

The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors has recently produced several television ads featuring Naturopathic doctors sporting white lab coats and stethoscopes highlighting their apparent medical training. “True or false? Naturopathic doctors are medically trained. Of course we are. I’m a naturopathic doctor,” responds Dr. Jennifer Forgeron, as her name, along with the dubious title “ND” appear next to her on screen. Other commercials attempt to dispel the notion that Naturopathic Doctors aren’t regulated, as small text in the corner of the screen subtly notes that ND’s are currently only regulated in five provinces. The screen then fades to the slogan “Medically Trained. Naturally Focused. ™” Just like their medical training, the validity of these television spots should be seriously questioned.

While the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), one of the two accredited Naturopathic schools in Canada provides some refreshing clarity on the pre-requisite basic sciences courses, as well as medical science-based courses in the ND curriculum as far as the names of the courses go, there is a depressing drop off in information subsequently. For example, the CCNM course description for Embryology lists the following only, “Basic principles and mechanisms of human development from conception to shortly after birth are discussed. The normal development of each of the body's systems is reviewed, and examples of how abnormal development may occur are given.” No suggested texts are offered, or qualifications of the professors are included. Compounding the concern, it is immediately striking to see that courses such as “Homeopathic Medicine I” and “Massage/Hydrotherapy” are taught alongside these more legitimate courses.

Perhaps as confusing as the slogan CAND has adopted, is the near-ubiquitous association Naturopaths have with the stethoscope. If there was one instrument that isn’t more intimately tied to a doctor, I am not aware of it. A survey of the CCNM course list shows courses such as “Physical and Clinical Diagnosis Practicum I” which offers “competence in taking a patient history and performing a physical examination efficiently and accurately…the skills necessary to conduct a thorough systems-based physical examination, interpret physical findings, elicit a complete medical history, and document the information appropriately.” This would imply training in the use of a stethoscope under the supervision of a Naturopath preceptor, which raises the concern on whether students are being taught to use the device correctly, and more importantly, what conditions are being taught to diagnose. It is difficult to make a sweeping statement about a Naturopath’s proficiency with a stethoscope, but one thing is certain – they are not cardiologists.

The ultimate demonstration of proficiency however, is successfully passing an accreditation exam. One would suspect that in order to boast about being “medically trained,” an aspiring ND should have to complete the same medical licensing exams as a Medical Doctor. This is not the case – not by a long shot. The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), while similar in structure to the American USMLE and Canadian LMCC exams are fundamentally different exams. The NPLEX is consistently shorter than the LMCC and USMLE in terms of questions asked and time allotted to write, notwithstanding that it has the additional burden to testing Naturopathic in addition to the Medical content. I wonder how Naturopaths would fare writing the USMLE…

Most concerning about these videos is the underlying message that a Naturopath is sufficient on their own to treat a health issue. The saddening events surrounding the death of Ezekiel Stephan from meningitis after being misdiagnosed and treated with echinacea instead of antibiotics by a Naturopathic doctor is a reminder of the harm those claiming to have a medical training can do. Meningitis is a diagnosis that fundamentally cannot be missed, and one that is taught to medical students early on and repeatedly throughout their training.

Allopathic, or medically-trained doctors are certainly not immaculate when put under the spotlight either. It would be foolish to not suggest that some MD’s have abused their training in similar ways to ND’s, or failed to treat serious medical issues to a reasonable standard. The separation lies with the fact that medicine is a science that subjects itself to the dominion of evidence over all else. What can be proved to not be effective is discarded from the arsenal of medical science, a concept quite the contrary to naturopathy, which makes a nest from the discarded scraps of evidence-based medicine, and then calls it “alternative.”

No doubt, these videos by the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors have been produced reflexively to the increasing public and media attention they have received after cases like Ezekiel Stephan. They insidiously mask that beneath the stethoscope-wielding, white-coated pseudophysician lies an organization in turmoil, struggling to increase their legitimacy and breadth of care, paying little attention to the training they provide and even less to the impact they will have.

One has to wonder then, when a Naturopathic doctor asserts to you that they are medically trained, will they point to a poster in their office, written in small hardly visible text, listing the terms and conditions?

Read more
Categories: From Our Contributors

Naturally Trained, Medical Pains

Recent posts from our Blog - Tue, 11/15/2016 - 00:34

The Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors has recently produced several television ads featuring Naturopathic doctors sporting white lab coats and stethoscopes highlighting their apparent medical training. “True or false? Naturopathic doctors are medically trained. Of course we are. I’m a naturopathic doctor,” responds Dr. Jennifer Forgeron, as her name, along with the dubious title “ND” appear next to her on screen. Other commercials attempt to dispel the notion that Naturopathic Doctors aren’t regulated, as small text in the corner of the screen subtly notes that ND’s are currently only regulated in five provinces. The screen then fades to the slogan “Medically Trained. Naturally Focused. ™” Just like their medical training, the validity of these television spots should be seriously questioned.

While the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), one of the two accredited Naturopathic schools in Canada provides some refreshing clarity on the pre-requisite basic sciences courses, as well as medical science-based courses in the ND curriculum as far as the names of the courses go, there is a depressing drop off in information subsequently. For example, the CCNM course description for Embryology lists the following only, “Basic principles and mechanisms of human development from conception to shortly after birth are discussed. The normal development of each of the body's systems is reviewed, and examples of how abnormal development may occur are given.” No suggested texts are offered, or qualifications of the professors are included. Compounding the concern, it is immediately striking to see that courses such as “Homeopathic Medicine I” and “Massage/Hydrotherapy” are taught alongside these more legitimate courses.

Perhaps as confusing as the slogan CAND has adopted, is the near-ubiquitous association Naturopaths have with the stethoscope. If there was one instrument that isn’t more intimately tied to a doctor, I am not aware of it. A survey of the CCNM course list shows courses such as “Physical and Clinical Diagnosis Practicum I” which offers “competence in taking a patient history and performing a physical examination efficiently and accurately…the skills necessary to conduct a thorough systems-based physical examination, interpret physical findings, elicit a complete medical history, and document the information appropriately.” This would imply training in the use of a stethoscope under the supervision of a Naturopath preceptor, which raises the concern on whether students are being taught to use the device correctly, and more importantly, what conditions are being taught to diagnose. It is difficult to make a sweeping statement about a Naturopath’s proficiency with a stethoscope, but one thing is certain – they are not cardiologists.

The ultimate demonstration of proficiency however, is successfully passing an accreditation exam. One would suspect that in order to boast about being “medically trained,” an aspiring ND should have to complete the same medical licensing exams as a Medical Doctor. This is not the case – not by a long shot. The Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX), while similar in structure to the American USMLE and Canadian LMCC exams are fundamentally different exams. The NPLEX is consistently shorter than the LMCC and USMLE in terms of questions asked and time allotted to write, notwithstanding that it has the additional burden to testing Naturopathic in addition to the Medical content. I wonder how Naturopaths would fare writing the USMLE…

Most concerning about these videos is the underlying message that a Naturopath is sufficient on their own to treat a health issue. The saddening events surrounding the death of Ezekiel Stephan from meningitis after being misdiagnosed and treated with echinacea instead of antibiotics by a Naturopathic doctor is a reminder of the harm those claiming to have a medical training can do. Meningitis is a diagnosis that fundamentally cannot be missed, and one that is taught to medical students early on and repeatedly throughout their training.

Allopathic, or medically-trained doctors are certainly not immaculate when put under the spotlight either. It would be foolish to not suggest that some MD’s have abused their training in similar ways to ND’s, or failed to treat serious medical issues to a reasonable standard. The separation lies with the fact that medicine is a science that subjects itself to the dominion of evidence over all else. What can be proved to not be effective is discarded from the arsenal of medical science, a concept quite the contrary to naturopathy, which makes a nest from the discarded scraps of evidence-based medicine, and then calls it “alternative.”

No doubt, these videos by the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors have been produced reflexively to the increasing public and media attention they have received after cases like Ezekiel Stephan. They insidiously mask that beneath the stethoscope-wielding, white-coated pseudophysician lies an organization in turmoil, struggling to increase their legitimacy and breadth of care, paying little attention to the training they provide and even less to the impact they will have.

One has to wonder then, when a Naturopathic doctor asserts to you that they are medically trained, will they point to a poster in their office, written in small hardly visible text, listing the terms and conditions?

Read more
Categories: OSS Blog

Lyrics that convey scientific truths

Recent posts from our Blog - Fri, 11/04/2016 - 04:02

Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, was a big hit for Disney studios in 1964. The film was a musicalized version of the children’s books about a magical English nanny written between 1934 and 1988 by P.L. Travers. The movie featured a number of songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman including the catchy tune sung by Andrews with the line, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

The idea for the lyrics came from a real life situation. Robert Sherman was working on ideas for a song but was drawing a blank until one day he came home and learned from his wife that his children had received a polio vaccine. Thinking that the vaccine had been a shot in the arm, he asked one of his children whether it had hurt. Not at all, the child replied. There had been no jab. A drop of liquid was placed on a sugar cube that had to be swallowed. At that moment the title for the song was born!

The oral vaccine that the Sherman children received had been developed by Albert Sabin and was introduced commercially in 1961. It used a weakened form of the polio virus that triggered the production of antibodies against the active virus. The oral version to a large extent replaced the original injectable vaccine introduced in 1955 by Jonas Salk based on an inactivated form of the virus. Thanks to these vaccines, polio has been largely eliminated from the world.

Of course, every sort of medical intervention is associated with some risk. In very rare cases, the vaccine can cause polio symptoms, but the benefits greatly outweigh any risk. Both vaccines are on the World Health Organization’s Model Lists of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system. Had the vaccine been available earlier, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt would not have contracted polio in 1921.

The spoonful of sugar in combination with a medicine may have an impact other than just pleasing our musical appetite. It seems that infants given a little bit of a sugar solution feel less pain during injections. British pediatrician Paul Heaton found that a few drops of sucrose solution put on their tongues before an injection was capable of blocking the pain felt in their arms or bottoms. He theorizes that: “The sweet taste works through nerve channels in the tongue that perceive sweetness in the brain.” The brain reacts by producing endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. Furthermore, in babies, sucking releases endocannabinoids that also alleviate pain. Heaton noted that once babies taste the solution, they cried less and recovered more quickly from the jab. He recommends giving babies just enough sugary solution to taste, but not enough to swallow before vaccination. Interestingly, the relationship between sweets and pain relief was first mentioned in historic Jewish texts that document baby boys being given honey before circumcision. What about adults? Well, chocolates, sweet pastries and soft drinks make for a less painful life for many people.

The Sherman brothers also composed the song that has been played more often in the world than any other. It’s a Small World After All is featured at all the Disney theme parks, an adaptation of an attraction introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The Sherman Brothers wrote the song in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which influenced the song’s message of peace and brotherhood. They also wrote a song for the Adventure Thru Inner Space attraction that was presented in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland from 1967 to 1985 designed to simulate humans shrinking to a size smaller than an atom. Visitors boarded Atommobiles and began a journey that passed through snowflakes into the inner space of molecules, then atoms. They got an idea of crystal structure, bonding between atoms and the composition of an atom. The journey was accompanied by the song Miracles from Molecules.

From the beginning until 1977, Adventure Thru Inner Space was sponsored by the Monsanto Company, which later transitioned from being a chemical manufacturer to a biotechnology firm. Founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny and named after his wife’s family, Monsanto initially produced food additives like saccharin and vanillin before expanding into industrial chemicals such as sulphuric acid and PCBs in the 1920s. By the 1940s, it was a major producer of plastics, including polystyrene, as well as a variety of synthetic fibres. Monsanto scientists had a number of notable achievements, like the development of “catalytic asymmetric hydrogenation,” that made possible the production of L-Dopa, the major drug used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. They also laid the foundation for the mass production of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that have revolutionized the lighting industry.

Monsanto has been criticized for once manufacturing such controversial products as the insecticide DDTPCBs used as insulators in electronic equipment and the notorious Agent Orange that was widely deployed as a defoliant during the Vietnam War. At the time, DDT and PCBs solved immediate problems, with DDT saving millions of people from contracting malaria and PCBs in transformers making electricity widely available. The environmental issues that eventually emerged concerning these chemicals were not, and probably could not have been foreseen at the time.

Today, most people associate Monsanto with genetic modification and the company serves as a lightning rod for anti-GMO activists. Indeed Monsanto was among the first to genetically modify a plant cell and one of the first to conduct field trials of genetically modified crops and now markets canola, soy, corn and sugar beet seeds that yield plants capable of resisting herbicides and warding off insects.

Let me end with a stanza from the Sherman brothers’ song Miracles from Molecules that once captivated visitors to Disneyland and which I believe is still meaningful today:

Now Men with dreams are furthering, What Nature first began, Making modern miracles, From molecules, for Man Read more
Categories: OSS Blog

The Right Chemistry: “Responsible scientific journalism is 2016 Trottier symposium focus”

Recent posts from our Blog - Sun, 10/16/2016 - 11:02
First time I had a chance to watch television was in 1956, after I came to Canada in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution. Back then, there was only one channel and it was on the air for only a few hours a day. But the newscasts did provide a window to the world that I had not seen open before. For breaking news, you depended on local radio stations, where you could also tune in to a variety of talk shows. There was the popular Joe Pyne, who would invite you to gargle with razor blades if you disagreed with him, and my favourite, Pat Burns, who had an opinion on everything and was not averse to abusing his callers. Indeed, it was Burns who stimulated my interest in skepticism. One of the regular callers on the Burns Hot Line was a woman who was convinced that space aliens walked among us, specifically, on Ste-Catherine Street. She recognized them because of their distinctive eyes! Pat would humour her for comic relief and often goaded her into making outrageous comments. One day, he was stressed for time and told her that he couldn’t let her go on about “her little green men.” She didn’t take this well, and claimed that if Pat cut her off, the aliens would cut him off. “OK, tell me tomorrow why they didn’t,” he retorted, as he proceeded to cut her off. Then he went to the next call, but there wasn’t one. The station had gone off the air and stayed off for six hours. There was no explanation. The woman called back the next day to gloat, but Pat just said “coincidence Doll, coincidence.” She stuck by her guns and maintained the aliens had done it. “So let’s see them do it again,” Burns fumed as he again cut her off. Well, you guessed it. The station went off the air again for half an hour! She called back the next day and this time Pat told her she could talk as much as she wanted, but she said there was no need because the aliens had made their point. A remarkable coincidence? A publicity stunt? Someone actually hacking the transmitter? We never heard a reasonable explanation as to what really happened. What I do know, is that the bizarre affair triggered my interest in “aliens,” and much to my surprise, I found that the local library had quite a collection of books on the subject. I read about the 1947 Roswell incident, involving the crash of what some people believed was a UFO, as well as about all sorts of UFO sightings. By this time, I had developed an interest in science and found the “proof” for alien visits less than compelling. Many of the accounts were fanciful and it seemed to me that the writers were sometimes driven more by commercial appeal than by evidence. This led me to look at all news reports, especially in the scientific realm, with a skeptical eye, and I took to evaluating them in terms of adhering to the tenets of responsible journalism. These days, with the tsunami of information and misinformation we face on a daily basis, that has turned out to be quite a challenge. We are no longer talking about one TV channel, but hundreds, satellite radio with access to thousands of stations and, of course, social media, which allow anyone to have a say on anything. As we witness on a regular basis, any twit can tweet. Then there is the Internet, featuring millions and millions of posts ranging from sound science to the inane blather of scientifically confused bloggers to whom responsible journalism is a foreign concept. But what exactly is responsible journalism? What makes some journalists more trustworthy than others? How do some activists become so adept at communicating twisted facts? These are the sorts of questions that McGill’s Trottier Public Science Symposium will attempt to answer this year. The symposium is organized by McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, of which I am director. We have reached out to four outstanding journalists who will explore the role of the media when it comes to science communication. On Monday evening, the CBC’s Erica Johnson, with five Gemini nominations for her work on the consumer program Marketplace, will detail her investigations of the pharmaceutical industry, alternative medicine and various marketing scams. She will be followed by National Magazine Award-winning journalist Julia Belluz, who covers medicine and public health for Vox.com. Julia will speak on “The Dr. Oz problem: How reporters should cover the peddlers of bad science.” On Tuesday evening, the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, whose National Geographic cover story about “The War on Science” was widely acclaimed around the world, will explore “How to Survive the Age of Bad Information.” Then Trevor Butterworth, executive director of Sense About Science USA will discuss “Facts, fiction, and science: where the lines become blurred.” Sense About Science is a non-profit organization that aims to equip people with the tools needed to make sense of science in an age permeated by nonsense. Their motto is “evidence matters.” Indeed it does. Famed American journalist Sydney J. Harris once opined that “The words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” The Trottier Public Science Symposium speakers will provide great information, and they will get through. You are all invited to two spirited evenings of presentations followed by a question and answer period. If any of those little green men who may have managed to knock Pat Burns off the air all those years ago are still around, well, they are invited too. We will look for their distinctive eyes. It all happens Monday, Oct. 17 and Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 5:30 p.m. at The Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke St. West. There is no admission cost for terrestrials or extraterrestrials. For more information on the Trottier Public Science Symposium, please visit the website.
Categories: OSS Blog

You Asked: How can homeopathic teething “remedies” that essentially contain nothing have an adverse effect on infants?

You Asked? - Sat, 10/15/2016 - 08:42

The FDA in the U.S has raised alarm about homeopathic teething pills that may have caused seizures in babies and possibly even caused some deaths. But how can homeopathic "remedies" do this, given that they contain nothing? The bizarre tenet of homeopathy is that a substance that causes symptoms in a health person can relieve those symptoms in a sick person as long as it is diluted to an extent that contains almost zero or a just a trace amount of the original substance. Homeopathic teething remedies are made by diluting a solution of belladonna in an extreme fashion.

Why belladonna is the preferred substance is bizarre since according to homeopathic doctrine, to relieve pain, it should cause pain when used at a high concentration. While atropine, the active ingredient in belladonna can cause many adverse symptoms, it doesn't cause pain. In any case, when diluted homeopathically, it should have no effect.

Now it seems some homeopathic companies are not very adept at making dilutions and the effects on the babies were likely caused by an overdose of belladonna. Dilution is really a very simple process, so it is hard to see how they could get it so wrong. It seems homeopaths are not only incompetent when it comes to understanding chemistry and medicine, some are also incompetent at carrying out dilutions. Obviously homeopathy is not always just benign nonsense.

Read more

You Asked: How can homeopathic teething “remedies” that essentially contain nothing have an adverse effect on infants?

Recent posts from our Blog - Sat, 10/15/2016 - 08:42

The FDA in the U.S has raised alarm about homeopathic teething pills that may have caused seizures in babies and possibly even caused some deaths. But how can homeopathic "remedies" do this, given that they contain nothing? The bizarre tenet of homeopathy is that a substance that causes symptoms in a health person can relieve those symptoms in a sick person as long as it is diluted to an extent that contains almost zero or a just a trace amount of the original substance. Homeopathic teething remedies are made by diluting a solution of belladonna in an extreme fashion.

Why belladonna is the preferred substance is bizarre since according to homeopathic doctrine, to relieve pain, it should cause pain when used at a high concentration. While atropine, the active ingredient in belladonna can cause many adverse symptoms, it doesn't cause pain. In any case, when diluted homeopathically, it should have no effect.

Now it seems some homeopathic companies are not very adept at making dilutions and the effects on the babies were likely caused by an overdose of belladonna. Dilution is really a very simple process, so it is hard to see how they could get it so wrong. It seems homeopaths are not only incompetent when it comes to understanding chemistry and medicine, some are also incompetent at carrying out dilutions. Obviously homeopathy is not always just benign nonsense.

Read more
Categories: OSS Blog

The Right Chemistry: Sugar research left a bitter taste

Recent posts from our Blog - Sun, 09/25/2016 - 04:03

“Is it true that putting a piece of garlic in the rectum at night can cleanse the body?”

And with that single question posed by an audience member back in 1975, my chemical focus shifted to food and nutrition. The question came after one of my first public talks on chemistry at a local library, where I had described the role chemistry plays in our daily lives, mostly using dyes, drugs, plastics and cosmetics as examples.

I was sort of taken aback by the question, but managed to stammer something like “where did you hear that?”

Back came the answer, “from Panic in the Pantry.” After mentioning that my only experience with garlic had been with rubbing it on toast with some very satisfying results to the palate, I promised to check out the reference.

It wasn’t hard to track down Panic in the Pantry in a local bookstore. The title had suggested some sort of attack on our food system, but this turned out not to be the case. At least not in the way I had thought. Flipping through the book I came across terms like “chemophobia,” “carcinogen,” “additives,” “chemical-free” and “health foods.” I was intrigued, especially on noting that the book had had been written by Frederick Stare, a physician with a previous degree in chemistry who had founded the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and co-author Elizabeth Whelan. Within a day I had read Panic in the Pantry from cover to cover and was so captivated that I dove into the turbid waters of nutrition and food chemistry with great enthusiasm. Ever since then, I have been trying to keep my head above water, buffeted by the growing waves of information and misinformation.

Panic in the Pantry focused on what the authors believed were unrealistic worries about our food supply, vigorously attacking the popular lay notion that “if you can’t pronounce it, it must be harmful.” Yes, that daft message was around long before the Food Babe made it her anthem. In truth, the risks and benefits of a chemical are a consequence of its molecular structure, and are determined by appropriate studies, not by the number of syllables in its name. Stare and Whelan also challenged the “Delaney Clause,” a piece of U.S. legislation stating that no additive shall be deemed safe if it has been shown to cause cancer in any species upon any type of exposure. They pointed at studies that showed very different effects of chemicals in rodents and humans and maintained that it was unrealistic to condemn additives if exposure was not taken into account. “Too much sun can cause skin cancer, but does that mean we should stay indoors all the time?” they asked.

What about the curious case of the clove of garlic in the rectum? An excellent example of a misinterpretation of information, something that I have seen much too often. In a discussion of food faddism through the ages, the authors introduced the antics of one Adolphus Hohensee, who had forged a career as a “health food” advocate after his real estate business had landed him in jail for mail fraud. The dietary guru told his audiences that the sex act should last an hour, and if they did not measure up to this level of sexual adequacy it was because they had a diet laden with additives.

Hohensee’s answer to the chemical onslaught was a clove of garlic in the rectum at night, with proof of its efficacy being the scent of garlic on the breath in the morning. Obviously, the garlic had worked its way from bottom to top, cleansing everything in-between. Far from promoting this regimen, Stare and Whelan had used it to highlight the extent of nutritional quackery.

I found most of the arguments in Panic in the Pantry highly palatable, but there was a discussion of one chemical that left a somewhat bitter taste. That chemical was sugar. I had been quite taken by Pure, White and Deadly, a 1972 book by British physiologist John Yudkin, who made a compelling case linking sugar to heart disease, cavities, diabetes, obesity and possibly some cancers. Stare dismissed sugar as a culprit, implicating saturated fats as the cause of coronary disease. That to me seemed not to meet the standard of evidence that was applied to other issues in Panic in the Pantry.

As it turns out, there was a reason for Stare’s dismissal of sugar as a health problem. In 1965, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF), the industry’s trade association, asked Stare to sit on its advisory board because of his expertise in the dietary causes of heart disease. The sugar industry was extremely worried about Yudkin’s growing influence and decided to embark on a major program to take the focus off sugar and direct it toward fats. Stare’s defence of sugar as a quick energy food that should be put in coffee or tea several times a day and calling Coca Cola a healthy between meals snack was welcomed by the industry.

As we have now learned from historical documents brought to light in a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the SRF paid members of Stare’s department to carry out a literature review, overseen by Stare, designed to point a finger at fats while expressing skepticism about sugar’s supposed criminality. That review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine without any disclosure of sugar industry funding and successfully steered readers away from associating sugar with heart disease. While Stare, who died in 2002, was correct about many aspects of unfounded chemophobia, his reputation has now been tarnished by the undeclared payments received by his department from the sugar industry.

Sugar, as we now know, is not as innocent as Stare had claimed. But at least he never did suggest garlic in the rectum to cleanse toxins. As far as I know, neither has the Food Babe.

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Alkaline Nonsense

Recent posts from our Blog - Mon, 09/19/2016 - 04:01

It is so seductively simple.  If you want to avoid cancer, just make sure your body is “alkaline!”  Here is the rationale.  When a cell becomes cancerous it reduces its use of oxygen and cranks up its production of acids.  These conditions then allow such cells to multiply quickly.  To counter this, you have to ensure that cells get an adequate supply of oxygen and that the acids produced are neutralized.  How?  By introducing sources of oxygen such as hydrogen peroxide or ozone into the body and consuming “alkaline” foods.  If cancer has already taken a foothold, then it may be necessary to dose up on cesium, the “most alkaline nutritional mineral.”  So simple, and so wrong!

As so often happens, promoters of nonsensical therapies seize a few filaments of scientific fact and weave these into a tangled web that ensnares the desperate and the scientifically confused.  In this case, it all starts with the work of German physician Otto Warburg who received the 1931 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cellular metabolism.  Warburg showed that that the growth of malignant cells requires markedly smaller amounts of oxygen than that of normal cells and that their metabolism follows an “anaerobic” pathway leading to the production of lactic acid.  This notion lay dormant until the 1980’s when Dr. Keith Brewer, a physicist with no medical training, used it to support his perplexing theory of how potassium and calcium control the transport of glucose and oxygen into cells, and how irritation of the cell’s membrane interferes with this transport system.  The result, Brewer maintained, is the “Warburg effect,” which lowers the cell’s pH, reduces its oxygen supply, and causes changes in DNA characteristic of cancer.  He then went on to claim that cesium’s chemically similarity to potassium allows it to be readily taken up by cells, but that unlike potassium, it does not transport glucose into cells while allowing oxygen to enter.  As a result, cancer cells are enriched in oxygen, deprived of glucose, form less lactic acid, become more alkaline, and as a consequence, die.  Sounds good, but Brewer got the “Warburg effect” all wrong.  Cancer cells do shift to a mode of metabolism that doesn’t use oxygen, but this happens even in the presence of oxygen!

Brewer went on to buttress his argument by claiming that cancer is almost unknown among the Hopi Indians of Arizona, the highland Indians of Peru and the Hunza of North Pakistan.  Why?  Because due to the cesium in the soil, they have a “high pH” diet.  Whether these people actually do have a lower cancer rate is questionable, and even if this were the case, it could not be ascribed to cesium in the diet without further investigation.  But then to take the cake (undoubtedly cesium enriched) Brewer in 1984 published a paper with the following claim: “Tests have been carried out on over 30 humans and in each case the tumour masses disappeared.  Also, all pains and effects associated with cancer disappeared within 12 to 36 hours; the more chemotherapy and morphine the patient had taken, the longer the withdrawal period.”  Not only had he discovered the cancer cure that had eluded the thousands of PhDs and MDs working in cancer research around the world, but he also showed that chemotherapy was actually harmful.  Quite a claim!

And just where were these miraculously cured patients, and who had treated them?  Brewer refers to Dr. Hellfried Sartori (aka Prof. Abdul-Haqq Sartori) who had accomplished this incredible feat in the Washington D.C. area.  This is the same Dr. Sartori who in July of 2006 was arrested in Thailand for fraud and practicing medicine without a license.  He was charging desperate patients were up $50,000 for “cancer cures” which included cesium chloride injections.  The good doctor, who routinely promised that he could cure his patients of any disease, has a rather illustrious history.  Known as the notorious “Dr. Ozone” in the U.S. , he served five years in prison in Virginia and nine months in New York for defrauding patients with unapproved therapies such as cesium chloride injections, coffee enemas and ozone flushes.  Needless to say, there are no records of the patients whom, according to Brewer, Sartori cured of cancer.  Australian police are now looking into the deaths of six people who died after intravenous injections of cesium chloride at clinics following Sartori’s protocol.

Introducing ozone or hydrogen peroxide to raise cellular oxygen levels is a scientifically bankrupt idea, as is raising a cell’s pH with cesium chloride.  Of course, it is not the absurdity of the theory that rules out its effectiveness, it is the lack of evidence!  There are no controlled trials showing cancer being cured with ozone or cesium.  But there is evidence that cesium chloride can cause cardiac arrhythmia and death.  Granted, it is unlikely that this can happen from the oral doses being promoted by numerous alternative practitioners aimed at raising the body’s pH, but the idea that cesium chloride can neutralize acids in cells is sheer nonsense.

Yes, cesium is an “alkali” metal.  Dropping a piece of cesium metal into water does indeed produce an alkaline solution (and an explosion).  But cesium chloride is not the same as cesium metal, it is a neutral salt.  In any case, the blood’s pH cannot be altered by cesium chloride ingestion, or indeed with the ingestion of any food.  It is a marvelously buffered system, meaning that it resists any change in acidity.  It doesn’t matter what we eat or drink, our blood contains substances that can act as acids or bases to maintain our blood pH at 7.4.  The only body fluid that responds to diet in terms of pH is the urine.  Breads, cereals, eggs, fish, meat and poultry can make the urine more acidic while most, but not all, fruits and vegetables make the urine more alkaline.  A diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in meat can indeed reduce the risk of cancer, but this has absolutely nothing to do with changing the pH of cancer cells.  The idea of an “alkaline” diet to prevent or treat cancer may sound seductively simple, but in reality it is just simple minded.

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The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)

Recent posts from our Blog - Sat, 08/27/2016 - 04:44

Amidst the cacophony of jingoist, vacuous blather at the Republican Convention there were some noteworthy phrases that probably slipped by most viewers. A number of speakers talked about the need to reign in the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency, the “EPA.” That is something one would expect from Republicans who want as little government interference in their life as possible. But these are the same Republicans who voted to update the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act that finally was passed in June by Congress with bipartisan approval after ten years of debate. This update was very much needed because significant information has been accumulated since 1976 about exposure to chemicals in the environment and their potential effect on health.

The old law required companies to register new chemicals that would enter commerce with the EPA but there was no requirement to furnish any safety data, and there was no provision for EPA to tackle the risks associated with chemicals already on the market at the time. The assumption was that chemicals are safe unless shown to be otherwise. The EPA did have the power to ban a chemical, but the burden of proof of harm was on the agency. Also, the economic downsides had to be factored in before the use of any chemical was limited. With companies introducing about 700 chemicals every year, and the EPA inventory building up to some 85,000 substances, the task of ferreting out dangerous ones is overwhelming. While determining risk when exposure is high, such as in an occupational setting, is relatively easy, determining risk to consumers who may be exposed to some chemical in tiny amounts over a long period is daunting.

But under the new law, EPA has to examine a chemical before it is put on the market and make a decision about safety. The risk assessment will take into account how a chemical is used. For example, a fluorinated compound may be deemed to be fine for use in airplane fire extinguishers, but not as an oil repellant in pizza boxes. An important new feature is that the agency will now have the authority to ask for information from producers about studies that have been carried out and can even ask for further studies. Another new facet is that EPA does not have to consider the economic implications of declaring a substance to be toxic. Furthermore, it is going to be much tougher for a company to withhold information claiming trade secrecy.

There are also 90 chemicals that have been identified as meriting investigation and possible regulation with EPA having to adhere to mandatory deadlines. The new bill has the support of the chemical industry because it should reduce consumer angst given that EPA will now be charged with examining the safety of chemicals before they go on the market. But here is the issue. While Republicans in the House voted for the bill, they also voted to cut the EPA’s funding and staffing for 2017. If EPA is going to carry out its new duties effectively, it will need more, not less funding. The plan is that some of the shortfall will be offset by charging companies fees for submitting chemicals for EPA to review. That may not sit well with Republicans.

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There ain’t no cure for the summertime buzz!

Recent posts from our Blog - Sun, 08/14/2016 - 02:55

There’s a buzz in the air these days, a loud one. I’m sure you’ve heard it but it could have easily been mistaken for a malfunctioning drone plane stuck in the trees. The sounds of summer are slowly becoming dominated by the mating songs of male Cicadas, as their relatively long lives culminate in a grand finale. And it sure is noisy.

You may have seen the recent headlines from the media outlets that announced the imminence of a “Cicadapocalypse”, but I can assure you that it will be significantly less dramatic than that. As usual, however, there is some truth behind the warning, only that there may be many more Cicadas around this year than in others, due to the strange periodicity of the Cicada lifecycle.

Cicadas are large-bodied insects, closely related to aphids and plant hoppers, who spend most of their lives as larvae eating roots underground before they pupate to adulthood and crawl up the nearest tree to mate and lay eggs before dying. In Eastern North America there are seven kinds, which are known as Periodical Cicadas, four species of which have 13-year lifecycles and the other three have 17-year cycles.

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Cats and catnip

Recent posts from our Blog - Sun, 08/07/2016 - 10:18

What do we know about cats? You show them a litter box and they will from that moment on never make anywhere else in the house. Try that with a dog. Cats don’t have receptors for sweets, so you can’t train them by offering them sweet treats. In fact, you can’t train  them at all. That’s supposedly because they are too smart to cater to human whims. I don’t know about that; after all, they will chase the beam of a laser pointer ad nauseum, never learning that they cannot catch it.

If you think your cat is affectionate towards you because he or she rubs up against your leg, think again. They are just marking you as their territory, so that if they find themselves in danger, they’ll know where to run for protection. Cats do have a remarkable ability to land on all fours if you toss them into the air, and they are pretty good at catching mice and birds that they will then offer as a present to the household where they happen to be living. If you want to reciprocate to this kindness, you can offer them a little catnip. They’ll immediately turn on their back and wait for some tummy rubbing. Why they respond to the scent of this flowering plant is a mystery since it doesn’t seem to offer any evolutionary advantage. Actually, not all cats are attracted, but roughly three quarters of them are. Some sort of genetic trait is likely involved. Furthermore, only mature cats are attracted, kittens are actually repelled by the scent.

The chemical in the scent of catnip that produces cat euphoria is nepetalactone. The plant does not produce this compound to attract cats. Since cats do not pollinate, and do not eat insects, there is no advantage to the catnip plant to attract felines. So we have to look elsewhere for any advantage offered to the plant by nepetalactone. It turns out that this compound happens to be a pheromone, or sex attractant, for aphids, the tiny sap-sucking insects that can sap the life out of a plant.

Obviously there is no advantage to the plant in attracting aphids. But there is an advantage in attracting aphid predators. The lacewing fly and creepy wasp find that aphids provide just the right environment for laying their eggs and have learned to hunt down aphids by going after the pheromone they produce. The catnip plant takes advantage of this phenomenon and churns out nepetalactone to attract the aphid predators that then lay their eggs inside the live aphids and end up killing them.

While cats love catnip, cockroaches do not. The scent of nepetalactone sends them skittering away.  Removing the roaches’ antennae renders them indifferent to nepetalactone, revealing that it is receptors on these rather than on the feet or in the mouth that respond. Nepetalactone also repels a variety of biting insects, including the mosquito. But it’s not a good idea to use an insect repellant based on this chemical if you are on safari. Catnip attracts big cats too. Like lions, tigers and leopards. I don’t think you want these guys rubbing against your leg.

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