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Patrick Holford’s appearance on the Late Late on Friday was televised to the nation as a gospel proclamation: come see my magic works and repent, oh ye of little scientific understanding. I presumed that this would be the part of the show where RTE trot out someone to allow the audience to snigger at their conspiracy theories or visions. Not so with Mr Holford, who was introduced as a world leading nutritionist.
Lets start with the title and work our way downward, Patrick Holford, or, to give him his proper title, ‘pill salesman’, has no qualifications. He has built a business on selling supplements to anyone that will buy them. He is not a medical practitioner, scientist, researcher or expert for a number of reasons.

1: Qualifications from a recognized third level institution :0
Most people agree that qualifications from recognized institutions are a prerequisite to taking medical advice from somebody. The letters after your G.P.’s name denote years of study and examination, something Mr Holford has conveniently sidestepped.

2: His peer reviewed publications : 0
Part of being a scientist is putting your findings out there within the scientific community for peer review. This involves having every minute aspect of your findings interrogated, criticised and if necessary; rejected. It’s a soul destroying process, and why would anyone willingly submit to it? The reason scientists do this is to protect the public, to produce work based on the best evidence available and to advance understanding.

3: Nutritionist is not a protected title; in other words, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. I can call myself one and recommend daily snickers and bottles of Lucozade to beat the winter blues. My next bestseller will be ‘The Barbarians Nutrition Bible’, brought to you by Creme Eggs.

4: His ‘honorary diploma’ was awarded to him by The Board of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, which is an educational trust that HE founded in 1984. The same as if I opened ‘The Barbarian Center for Barbarian studies’  and awarded myself a PhD from it. That’s Doctor Barbarian to you.

Moving swiftly on, his first contention that women have less serotonin than men and thus are far more susceptible to depression. That’s quite a statement there Patrick, so let’s see what you left out?
What he fails to mention is that serotonin –which he refers to as the ‘happy’ chemical’  – is also serotonin the ‘aggression’ chemical. So yes, we have less of that particular chemical than our larger male counterparts, evolution has yet to catch up on the need for greater amounts of serotonin in males. But to claim that this is why women present with greater rates of depression ignores the under-diagnosis of male sufferers, it ignores the greater pressures and burdens on women in society and it ignores the social aspects of women’s as opposed to men’s lives. Outside of the fact that the serotonin hypothesis of depression is but a part of the neurochemical reasons for depression and correlation should not be read as causation. There are other chemicals at play in the depression etiology, but Patrick did not feel like talking about those.

Why would he say this? As stated earlier, Patrick Holford is a pill salesman, carefully targeting the audience at home, in particular the ladies. They might be sitting there on a Friday night patiently awaiting the next ‘cure’, ready to go out shopping for it on Saturday. By appealing to women with half truths he reached his market, EPIC WIN for Patrick, 100 points off the bat, uncontested by the host. At this stage I was having a full John McEnroe freak out, hollering ‘you cannot be serious maaaaaannnnn’ at the TV. Holford was allowed ride roughshod all over Ryan, his facts, cherry picked from obscure sources, citing trials but failing to mention participants, full findings or financial backing involved. For, as Mr. Holford loves to points out, there are forces at play in big pharma, forces that want to manipulate the facts to suit themselves, but that’s not the way science works. The slow but steady erosion of confidence in science continues unabated, with the portrayal of massive organisations working to keep you hooked, unhappy and dependent. As opposed to ‘Alternative Pharma’ with such constraints. No one mentions how the humble supplement is now a multimillion pound industry in its own right.

The problem with manufacturing medicine is all the damn procedures! Peer reviewed publications in general science are open to criticism and stringent testing and retesting before they can be marketed to the general public. If you want to manufacture a supplement it’s much simpler:  all you need is one small link between two things, causal or correlation-we don’t care. Bang them in a bottle, stick the ould ‘may help’ claim before any claims, and bob’s your uncle.

Minute effects based on the interaction of cells in petrie dishes are lauded as proof of the efficacy of drugs. None more disturbing than Mr. Holford’s marketing of Vitamin C as a cure for AIDS in Africa. Ah yes, Tubs, you forgot to ask him about that, forgot to mention that inconvenient fact.

For facts have very little to do with Mr. Holford’s business. For a man who claims to be interested in improving the lives of people, of making people happy, could you really ignore that this man was recommending that people avoid using tried and tested drugs for the treatment of AIDS?.

I leafed through one of the few remaining copies of Holford’s book in the local bookshop Saturday evening, with chapters about how medicine is out to get you and how his pills will cure you. While a small minority of people will achieve placebo effects from Holford’s claims, the majority will not. Yet more will be negatively biased towards medicinal treatments for depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as favorable as the next person to proper help and supports as well as environmental and social interventions to aid depression recovery. I am not, however, about to throw the baby out with the bath water; your G.P. is not there to dispense items which they know don’t work.

I only wish that our esteemed Late Late show host could find time in his busy schedule to read the background check on his guests and ask hard questions. One can only hope that a scientist turns up with Tubs next week to redress the balance. Learning a little about science can save you a fortune, it can save you from false promises and it always strives to save lives. I heartily recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science; it’s a tenner you won’t waste, as it will pay for itself 100 times over when you find yourself reaching for the next ‘magic diet pill’ or ‘collagen rich cream’.

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Quick science update. Two stories caught my eye – or maybe nose? – over the last couple of days. The first was that bacteria smell. And no I’m not talking about the pong of your bashed-up runners or the bin full of rotting vegetation in a heatwave. I mean they actually seem to have a prototype sense of smell – they detect volatile, airborne compounds that you or I would classify as an odour. In this case the bacteria in question sensed some ammonia being given off by other bacteria nearby and they responded by producing slime and changing colour. You just have to love how bacteria don’t hold back in letting their neighbours know how they feel. The study was carried out in Newcastle University and it’s published in Biotechnology Journal if you really want to check it out. As an aside, some commentators have been getting a little sniffy about how reports of the findings talk about bacteria having a ‘sense of smell’ rather than just detecting airborne chemicals, so apologies to anyone offended by the reek in that inference.
The other smell-related story that popped up on my radar got pushed under my nose late last night when an editor I work with emailed me the link. I can see how he had been intrigued by the headline – Breath Test Could Reveal Cancer. Using a test based on gold nanoparticles scientists were able to detect levels of airborne compounds that increase in cancer patients, and the preliminary study showed the electronic nose could distinguish between healthy and malignant breath. Malignant breath? Yikes.

Claire O’Connell

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Guess what? Scientists reckon they can now predict when a young woman will start into the menopause by testing her for levels of a particular hormone. Well, so it would seem anyway from reports like this one. A study of 266 women in Iran aged between 20 and 49 measured their levels of anti-mullerian hormone (AMH, it’s made by the ovaries) over a number of years as well as finding out about their reproductive and family histories.

From all this, the researchers came up with a formula to forecast when menopause would start, and apparently they claimed their model could predict whether a woman in her 20s would have an early menopause (before 45). Now before we go wondering whether we want to gaze into that particular crystal ball, can I just point out that these results were presented at a conference – the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology – so they are not in the gold standard of a peer-reviewed paper for starters. Plus the study itself is pretty small, so any rush to extrapolate to half of the human race is probably premature.

But it raises the intriguing notion that some day a woman may be able to waltz into a clinic in her youth and find out at what age she will start the so-called ‘change of life’.

Would you want to know?

Claire O’Connell

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L’Oréal loves to talk up the science. From its skin-and-hair labs in Paris to Jennifer Aniston steadying her gaze into your living room and warning that “the science bit” is coming, they revel in the white-coatedness of it all. But it’s not just the men in those white coats, no. The cosmetics empire also wants to give women a nudge along scientific research trajectory.

And so two Dublin-based women are packing their bags to go to London tomorrow to represent their dreams of advancing a scientific idea.
Dr Lourdes Basabe-Desmonts, a research fellow at Dublin City University, is developing a surface-based technology to measure how stem cells develop in the lab. Meanwhile Dr Rachel Evans from Trinity College Dublin is looking at a new way to create small-scale organic electronic devices.
They are among eight short-listed candidates for this competition, of which four will receive a 2010 L’Oréal UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science Fellowship that provides £15,000 in funding to further their work.

Now to those of us living in NAMA-land whose ears are tuned into the millions and billions, that amount doesn’t seem very much. But it all counts. And the prestige that goes with a L’Oréal UNESCO award is not to be sniffed at. A 2009 winner of one of their international fellowships (they only gave out 15 worldwide), Dr Lydia Lynch, now divides her time between University College Dublin and Harvard. She is looking at how obesity messes with the immune system and can put people at higher risk of developing cancer. Lynch is definitely on my ‘one to watch’ list and best of luck to the two candidates in the Ireland and UK competition tomorrow.

Claire O’Connell

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