Pouring a coat of sugar

PZ Myers has a post on cancer and the quacks and filthy liars who try to take advantage of the disease.

Barbara Ehrenreich had breast cancer, and ugly and frightening as that disease is, she found something else that was almost as horrible: the ‘positive thinking’ approach to health care. People are stigmatized if they fail to regard their illness as anything other than an uplifting, positive life experience, an opportunity to examine their lives and identify what is most important to them…and also, most disturbingly, if they fail to appreciate that the attitude that they bring to the problem will determine whether they live or die. It’s the Oprah-zation of medicine.

I can’t help but think of the Andreas Moritz’s and naturopaths of the world who are genuinely dangerous to the well-being of people struggling with cancer and other diseases. Some of these people are sincere, I can grant that. But sincerity does not equate to qualified. It does not equate to safe. And in the case of someone specifically like Moritz, it’s pure charlatanry. That adds a loathsome level to the situation, but the effect is precisely the same as a naturopath or janitor or Deepak Chopra ‘treating’ the disease.

Besides, it takes effort to maintain the upbeat demeanor expected by others – effort that can no longer be justified as a contribution to long-term survival. Consider the woman who wrote to Deepak Chopra that her breast cancer had spread to the bones and lungs: “Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise, and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps reoccurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude.”

Chopra’s response: “As far as I can tell, you are doing all the right things to recover. You just have to continue doing them until the cancer is gone for good. I know it is discouraging to make great progress only to have it come back again, but sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it.”

It’s disgusting. The man is preying on vulnerable people and he knows it. There isn’t an honest bone in his body. To make matters worse, he isn’t doing a damn thing to help the cancer-ridden bones (and lungs and livers and breasts and…) of anyone. Anywhere. Ever.

I thoroughly despise these sugar-coating, money-grubbing scumbags.

Never mind, Cedric

Turns out that, in addition to updates on this being surprisingly frequent, Cedric the Tasmanian devil is not immune to the cancer afflicting his population.

Two coin-sized tumours were cut out of his face and, although it is hoped he will make a full recovery, it casts doubt on much of the research work conducted over the past two years, the BBC’s Nick Bryant reports from Sydney.

Double update update: Actually, I was getting articles from a recent blog post which had out-of-date references. Cedric proved to be a dead-end close to a year ago.

Devil cancer update

The devastating cancer spreading through the Tasmanian devil population has so far met resistance in at least one devil (Cedric), and possibly in his brother (Clinky).

Both were injected with dead tumours by scientists. Clinky produced no antibodies, but Cedric did and appears to have built-in defences against the mystery illness.

The experiments have now moved up a gear.

Researcher Alex Kriess says the pair have had live cancer cells inserted into their faces.

“They haven’t developed a tumour so far,” he said. “We injected very few cells so it might take a while until they develop anything that we can see.”

The next step is to see why Cedric may be resistant to the disease, which Jerry Coyne has deemed “can be regarded as a separate organism, genetically free to undergo independent evolution.” (The syntax is correct, but for clarity, it’s the disease that can be regarded as a separate organism.)

The most interesting aspect of all this is that Cedric comes from the side of the island not yet especially devastated by the disease. As more research is done, it will be interesting to find out if there is any sort of special history with cancer, even this specific cancer, that Cedric’s part of the island has had. That could be one driving cause behind the genetic difference to consider in addition to simple drift or geographical barriers.

Image via Jerry Coyne

Gene therapy for color blindness

How’s this for weird? This past semester I did a paper on color blindness, citing the different types, where the mutations occur, and the newest research. I was just about to post about one specific breakthrough when I got distracted by a list of the top scientific breakthroughs of 2009. As it turns out, number one has to do with gene therapy.

Two boys with X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy, a disease that ravages the brain, are doing well after French doctors gave them a gene that helps to maintain the delicate myelin coating on their nerve cells. A woman with Pachyonychia Congenita, a painful skin condition, watched one of her sores fade after doctors switched off the offending protein with a newer kind of gene therapy called RNA interference. Twelve patients who were blinded by Leber’s congenital amaurosis showed signs of recovery after getting a genetic treatment in one of their eyes. Italian researchers announced that most of the 10 patients who received gene therapy for severe combined immunodeficiency, or “bubble boy disease,” are doing very well eight years after the procedure that repaired their defenses against infection.

I especially love the implementation of RNAi. I strongly suspect its use will only increase in the coming years, especially in the fight against cancer.

Also this year, researchers at the University of Washington cured two adult monkeys of colorblindness by giving them injections of a gene that produces pigments necessary for color vision. After the treatment, the animals scored higher on a computerized color blindness test.

This one hits especially close to home. I also ‘suffer’ from color blindness, so I find it incredibly uplifting that I may not feel like I’m missing out on the things everyone else is seeing for the rest of my life. It isn’t that I can’t see color – I can – but colors become far less vibrant to me in lesser lighting. This happens to all humans, but it happens to those with color blindness sooner. I also cannot make fine distinctions, like the ones you see (literally) in the Cambridge Colour Test for color blindness. Take this for instance.

Most people will see a “6” there. I can make out some discoloration and the vague shape of a 6, but I wouldn’t be able to guess it without already knowing what to expect. I am likely deuteranomalous. It’s a pretty common type of color deficiency and it doesn’t especially affect daily life – I didn’t know I had it until 3 or 4 years ago during a routine eye exam (which I no longer need thanks to LASIK).

(And blah blah blah your monitor may suck or you may suck at coming up with a balanced coloring, so that test may not show up correctly in the first place.)

Devil Facial Tumour Disease

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a particularly nasty tumor currently afflicting Tasmanian devils. It is responsible for the destruction of around 70% of the island population. One step, fortunately, has been made through the discovery of its specific cause.

The research collaboration, led by Australian scientists, has found that DFTD originates from cells called Schwann cells, which protect peripheral nerve fibres.

The results have been published in the journal Science.

Through the discovery, the team has now identified a genetic marker that could be used to accurately diagnose the perplexing cancer, which has seen the devil listed as endangered and facing extinction.

What happens is that these devils – so appropriately named – tear into each others’ faces because, well, that’s what they do. They’re about as nasty as the tumor itself. This then transmits the disease from one animal to the next. The research, in fact, has shown that the tumors all share the same characteristics, thus showing that it’s essentially the same faulty genes that are getting passed around, not new, individual tumors. Once the disease is passed, a massive tumor grows on the face of the unfortunate devil. If it doesn’t die directly from the cancer first, it starves from its inability to eat with a massive growth all over its face.

Associate Professor Greg Woods from the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Research Institute said the Schwann cell find was an important step in the process to further understand the disease.

“Devils develop tumours of all different types and the genetic markers we have identified are useful for telling apart the tumours that occur in DFTD from other kinds of tumours,” Associate Professor Woods said.

The propensity for devils to develop cancer so easily is distressing. They’re like the anti-naked mole rats. I would specifically be interested in learning about the quality of contact inhibition of the devils. My suspicion is that it simply sucks.