Slightly late to this, but about a week ago the US press started carrying stories about some highly unethical experiments carried out in Guatemala.   US medical researchers infected Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients with syphilis (without their consent) and went on to test whether the then new wonder drug, penicillin, would cure them.

This has been covered in-depth over at science-based medicine, so I won’t go into too much detail here.

One thing that caught my attention was that John C Cutler was the lead researcher on the experiment.  Cutler went on to work on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which ran into the ’70s.  This experiment tracked hundreds of poor black men with syphilis to study the long-term effects when the disease is left untreated.

The study started before the advent of antibiotics made effective treatment of syphilis possible.  An argument could be made that, given there was no effective treatment at the time, the study was not unethical at the start.  However my impression is that the subjects were never told that they had syphilis and therefore some men went on to infect partners who might have avoided infection had the men known of their infection.

Moreover this fig leaf of justification falls away completely once you realise the study went on for 25 years after penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis.  Doctors and scientists lied to the men involved to prevent them receiving treatment.  Indeed the study only ended after a whistleblower went to the press to have the study stopped (after failing to persuade his superiors to do so).

Unbelievable Cutler was still defending the Tuskegee experiment into the 90s.  Since he is dead we can never know what justifications he would have come up with for the Guatemala experiments.  Looking back over his career one is forced to the conclusion that the only thing distinguishing Cutler from those who ended up swinging at the end of a noose in Landsberg prison was not his ethics but that he was born American.

Hawking is one of those  rare scientists who has made it as a household name. I knew who he was when I was 7. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who Freddie Mercury was when I was 7.

I’ll be heading to his lecture at the Royal Albert Hall and reporting back on that most mundane of topics, the mysteries of the universe.

We’re all used to reading about various dubious remedies where magnets are supposed to treat a variety of ailments.  It was therefore a refreshing change to actually hear about a treatment for cancer based on magnetism with genuine potential this weekend.

The venue was the Royal Institution, where, as part of Open House weekend, members of their interdisciplinary research group were talking about their work.  One of their projects is looking at trying to treat cancer with magnets.  In particular magnetic nanoparticles injected into you.

These nanoparticles are supposed to latch onto a tumour thanks to a coating of an enzyme that binds onto cancerous cells but not onto healthy ones.  The enzyme has to be tailored to the particular type of cancer.   The next step is to hold an electromagnet over the area with the tumour.

If you pass an alternating current through the electromagnet, then the north and south poles on the electromagnet will keep switching back and forth.  This in turn will alternately attract, then repel the magnetic nanoparticles near the tumour.  As the nanoparticles move back and forth they rub against each other and the friction causes them to heat up.  Get them hot enough (around 42 degrees celsius) and the cancerous cells should start dying.

Thanks to a rubbery model of a patient with nanoparticles injected just under an area on its surface I could see this heating effect on a thermal imaging camera when an electromagnet was brought close.  When the electromagnet was held over an area of the model with no nanoparticles under the surface there was no heating.

This is all rather clever.  At the moment the team at the RI is trying to develop nanoparticles that are stronger magnets.  This will potentially allow the therapy to be used on tumours deeper within the body.  They are also working on testing the idea to see if it makes the transition from promising idea to workable treatment.

Something pedlars of dubious magnetic therapies should consider doing before unleashing their quackery on the world.

Stumbling across news of the upcoming “Galileo Was Wrong” conference made me feel somewhat like Dr Watson in a Study in Scarlet who observes:

“My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.”

The fact we are now in the 21st, rather than the 19th, century makes it even more extraordinary that there are people organising a conference dedicated to the idea that the Earth is at the centre of the universe.

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Periodically, Ray Kurzweil (author, inventor and machine intelligence pioneer) will pen an article or book making bold predictions about the future.  Recently Wired carried an article with quotes from him that suggested we will have reverse engineered the brain by 2030.

Kurzweil’s claims had biologists slapping their foreheads in irritation.  This post is not about Kurzweil.  It is about the biologists slapping their foreheads, or at least about some of the tangents the threads on their blogs took

Over at Pharyngula a discussion started up about the implications if we could create exact copies of ourselves.  Quantum mechanics has something to say about these speculations and maybe about how our brains work.

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The usual suspects at the Daily Mail are busily plugging the idea that eating berries (and walnuts) could stop Alzheimer’s.

Their story is based on work by Shibu Poulose who reported his findings to a meeting of the American Chemical Society.  The fact this was reported at a meeting or conference makes it sound rather as if Dr Poulose hasn’t published his research in a peer reviewed journal yet.  A quick search through Pubmed certainly fails to find any papers by Dr Poulose on the topic.

What the Mail didn’t tell you is that the research was carried out by feeding berries to rats.  Not humans.  At least over at the grown up papers the Telegraph did mention this fact but that isn’t stopping them from uncritically plugging the same story.

Depressingly the intrepid Dr Poulose is suggesting that people eat the whole fruit, which contain hundreds of health-boosting chemicals.  While the result sounds potentially promising, I’m not sure a rat study lasting a couple of months is enough evidence to be pontificating about what people should eat.  Perhaps you should be concentrating on getting this study published and then doing further work in actual humans first?

A final point of interest is the identity of the Telegraph journo covering this story.  Stephen Adams would appear to be their arts correspondant.  How did he end up covering a science/health story?

A Google search confirmed my suspicions and throws up a press release from the American Chemical Society.  All of which suggests the following journalism warning label should be plastered over the story:

For someone who enjoys looking through people’s poo so much, clearing out London’s sewers should be ideal.

This is 5 day old news to anyone who follows the left-wing bloggers like Sunny Hundal and Left Foot Forward, but some of us only have time to follow stuff up on the weekends.

Longtime climate sceptic and Mail science editor (there’s an alarming combo) Michael Hanlon wrote an experience piece this week from Greenland, where he underwent the following realisation:

I have long been something of a climate-change sceptic, but my views in recent years have shifted. For me, the most convincing evidence that something worrying is going on lies right here in the Arctic.

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What evidence would convince a scientist that a well established theory is incorrect?

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Who the hell is Gillian McKeith?

This lady. You know, the ‘nutritionist’ who analyses poo, and creates gravestones out of the amount of chocolate her prey supposedly eats, and similarly awful things:

This kind of behaviour on TV prompted scepticism in the science blogosphere, which promptly got on the case and discovered that her PhD, famously, is from an institution which is also happy to give an accredited qualification to a dead cat. Pretty sure you wouldn’t catch Warwick doing that kind of thing (although I can attest they will give pretty much anyone an English degree). She was subsequently taken to the ASA and had to drop the title of ‘Doctor’ from her show. And her books. It’s not that she hadn’t written a thesis. It’s just…more of a mockery of a thesis.

Why has this come up again?

She’s actually been on Twitter for a while, judging by her 1000+ tweets, but it seems like the science community only took note this morning (see the Guardian science man Adam Rutherford’s response). Presumably having noticed a Google Alerts/done a search for her own name – McKeith attacked one Bad Science reader Rachel Moody for this. Which then prompted this. And this and this and this. There are several things wrong with McKeith’s @ replies. This is a quick list:

  1. Oh Lord. Is she so arrogant she monitors the entire web/Twitterverse for mentions of herself? Presumably to tackle legal threats. Not like it works anyway. Read the Goldacre post I referred to above.
  2. I shouldn’t have bothered posing the above point as a question. I just looked at some of McKeith’s subsequent tweets. Viz: CLOSER MAGAZINE just gave a great book review on my new book, Women’s Health. It is truly a great book!!!. May I refer you to Terry Pratchett’s law of multiple exclamation marks.
  3. That was one tweet from Rachel Moody commenting on McKeith’s PhD. How does that morph into ‘anti-American bigotry‘?
  4. Speaking of legal threats, isn’t this, um, potentially libellous to Ben Goldacre?

You can also read Rachel’s plea for support on the Bad Science forums. Cue outrage across the science blogosphere – which can, admittedly, be a giant echo chamber but in this case the approach was justified.

Despite being active across various social media networks (across which she has, astonishingly, remained unscathed. Or she deletes negative comments, I don’t know), McKeith has declined to comment on the more recent aspersions being cast on her qualifications.

Maybe it’s time constraints. But then again, she seems to have found the time to block Goldacre.

Update: 13th July

Gillian McKeith (still failing to understand how social media works) has now deleted all of her semi-abusive tweets. Luckily, Ben Goldacre screengrabbed her tweets here yesterday, so scroll down to see the deleted tweets.


Amit Ghosh does mathsy things for an actuarial firm. He read Physics at university, and they even let him loose in the Cavendish laboratory one summer on a research project. He is @bexleylister on Twitter.

Shona Ghosh read English, then did an MA in Journalism. She knows nothing about science. She wishes she did though, so she sometimes reads New Scientist and tries to make Amit explain quantum physics to her, preferably through the medium of pictionary. She is @shonaghosh on Twitter.

They combine their thoughts on this blog.

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