Big Medical News: Use of Cellphones While Pregnant Risks Damage to Baby

A new study has found that using a cell phone 2 or 3 times a day while pregnant is potentially harmful to future child development. The risk level is on par with that of alchohol and tobacco.

Scientists found that mothers who did use the handsets were 54 per cent more likely to have children with behavioural problems and that the likelihood increased with the amount of potential exposure to the radiation

Women who use mobile phones when pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with behavioural problems, according to authoritative research.

A giant study, which surveyed more than 13,000 children, found that using the handsets just two or three times a day was enough to raise the risk of their babies developing hyperactivity and difficulties with conduct, emotions and relationships by the time they reached school age. And it adds that the likelihood is even greater if the children themselves used the phones before the age of seven.

The results of the study, the first of its kind, have taken the top scientists who conducted it by surprise. But they follow warnings against both pregnant women and children using mobiles by the official Russian radiation watchdog body, which believes that the peril they pose “is not much lower than the risk to children’s health from tobacco or alcohol”.

The research – at the universities of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Aarhus, Denmark – is to be published in the July issue of the journal Epidemiology and will carry particular weight because one of its authors has been sceptical that mobile phones pose a risk to health.

A Bottle That Purifies Enough Water for a Year

This is a really great invention — a hand held water bottle that can purify a year’s worth of water. It removes not only parasites and bacteria, but also viruses. It was just announced recently at a defense industry tradeshow and was a big hit among military commanders who need a better way to get water to their troops. Beyond that it could be a lifesaver in disaster areas and in developing countries where finding clean water is a daily struggle.

Axons Process Information

I just heard about a very interesting new discovery in neuroscience:. The basic gist is that it appears that axons process information. Until now it has been thought that only the cell body of neurons was the part that processed information. Our present understanding of the brain, and also of psychopharmacology, is based completely on the dendrites and main body of the neuron. If it turns out that axons — the "wires" that connect neurons — are actually major contributors to how the brain computes, then it may point to both a new understanding of cognition, as well as a new frontier in treating mental and neurological disorders. (Thanks to Bram for letting me know).

Networked Genome — New Finding Shatters Current Thinking

A new finding has discovered that the human genome may be highly networked. That is, genes do not operate in isolation, but rather they are networked together in a far more complex ecosystem than previously thought. It may be impossible to separate one gene from another in fact. This throws into question not only our understanding of genetics and the human genome, but also the whole genomics industry, which relies heavily on the idea that genes and drugs based on them can be patented:

The principle that gave rise to the biotech industry promised
benefits that were equally compelling. Known as the Central Dogma of
molecular biology, it stated that each gene in living organisms, from
humans to bacteria, carries the information needed to construct one

The scientists who invented recombinant DNA in 1973 built their
innovation on this mechanistic, "one gene, one protein" principle.

Because donor genes could be associated with specific functions,
with discrete properties and clear boundaries, scientists then believed
that a gene from any organism could fit neatly and predictably into a
larger design – one that products and companies could be built around,
and that could be protected by intellectual-property laws.

This presumption, now disputed, is what one molecular biologist calls "the industrial gene."

"The industrial gene is one that can be defined, owned, tracked,
proven acceptably safe, proven to have uniform effect, sold and
recalled," said Jack Heinemann, a professor of molecular biology in the
School of Biological Sciences at the University of Canterbury in New
Zealand and director of its Center for Integrated Research in Biosafety.

In the United States, the Patent and Trademark Office allows genes
to be patented on the basis of this uniform effect or function. In
fact, it defines a gene in these terms, as an ordered sequence of DNA
"that encodes a specific functional product."

In 2005, a study showed that more than 4,000 human genes had already
been patented in the United States alone. And this is but a small
fraction of the total number of patented plant, animal and microbial

In the context of the consortium’s findings, this definition now
raises some fundamental questions about the defensibility of those

If genes are only one component of how a genome functions, for
example, will infringement claims be subject to dispute when another
crucial component of the network is claimed by someone else?

Might owners of gene patents also find themselves liable for
unintended collateral damage caused by the network effects of the genes
they own?

And, just as important, will these not-yet-understood components of
gene function tarnish the appeal of the market for biotech investors,
who prefer their intellectual property claims to be unambiguous and

While no one has yet challenged the legal basis for gene patents,
the biotech industry itself has long since acknowledged the science
behind the question.

"The genome is enormously complex, and the only thing we can say
about it with certainty is how much more we have left to learn," wrote
Barbara Caulfield, executive vice president and general counsel at the
biotech pioneer Affymetrix, in a 2002 article on called "Why We
Hate Gene Patents."

"We’re learning that many diseases are caused not by the action of
single genes, but by the interplay among multiple genes," Caulfield
said. She noted that just before she wrote her article, "scientists
announced that they had decoded the genetic structures of one of the
most virulent forms of malaria and that it may involve interactions
among as many as 500 genes."

Even more important than patent laws are safety issues raised by the
consortium’s findings. Evidence of a networked genome shatters the
scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of
today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops
to pharmaceuticals.

Read the rest here

Some Sunscreens are Hazardous to Your Health

Just in time for the 4th of July, here is a comprehensive report on sunscreens which may be potentially unsafe to use. Yes, it turns out there are several new ingredients now being used in sunscreens which are not FDA approved and may cause unknown effects on humans. Other sunscreen ingredients paradoxically break down in the sun after even a few minutes and offer much less UVA protection than advertised. The article contains lists of sunscreen products by health hazard level and effectiveness.

New Aspartame Concerns — Study Finds Link to Cancer At Lower Levels

Suspicions of a link between Aspartame (the commonly used artificial sweetener) and various forms of cancer have received another boost from a new Italian study. The study found that even at relatively low levels of consumption, rats exposed to Aspartame had a significantly increased risk of several types of cancer. The implications of this are important for everyone, but especially children, because their lifetime consumption of Aspartame is expected to be much higher than those who started consuming it as adults. More details here.

Open-Source Medicine

There are thousands of promising drugs for treating diseases that are simply not getting studied or brought to market because they are derived from natural or common substances that can’t be patented. The dirty little secret of the pharma business is that even a miracle cure for cancer won’t be invested in if it can’t be defended as a proprietary product.

So here’s an idea for the ultra-rich (if you are reading this). If you
really want to help the world, start a foundation that funds "open-source medicine" — the research,
development, trials and distribution of non-patentable (or at least non-patented…) drugs.  This includes not only herbal and traditional remedies, but also other remedies derived from common substances that just cannot be patented.  And in addition it includes potentially patentable cures, which are found and then deliberately released as open-source so that nobody can patent them.

Open-source development has made a huge difference for software, so why not pharma and medicine? Why should all drug development be commercial?

Your shiny new foundation would bring together the greatest minds to collaboratively cure diseases for the betterment of mankind. Now that would be a great legacy!

New Cancer Cure May Not Get Funded Due to Lack of Patent

New cancer treatment hailed as a breakthrough, but since it’s based on a common, non-patented drug, it may be hard to find money for clinical trails:

A simple molecule, used for decades to treat children with rare
metabolic diseases, commits "immortal" cancer cells to a natural death
and could soon be used to treat many forms of cancer, according to a
new study.

University of Alberta researchers were excited to
discover that dichloroacetate (DCA) causes regression in several
cancers, including lung, breast and brain tumours.


DCA, a non-toxic compound comprised of "a couple of oxygens, a
couple of chlorides and a couple of carbons," appears to repair the
damage that cancer cells cause to mitochondria — the energy- producing
units in cells.

Mitochondria regulate cell death and because
cancer cells suppress their mitochondria, they achieve "immortality,"
Dr. Michelakis said. This appears to offer cancer cells a significant
advantage in growth compared to normal cells as well as protection from
many standard chemotherapies, he said.

DCA "puts life into the
mitochondria," making cancer cells more susceptible to apoptosis — a
natural cell suicide mechanism that enables a person to control cell
numbers and kill off cells that threaten his or her survival, he said.

being so small, is easily absorbed into the body, and after oral
intake, it can reach areas in the body that other drugs cannot —
making it possible to treat brain cancers.

It could one day be used in conjunction with traditional chemotherapies, Dr. Michelakis said.

DCA will enable the cell death mechanisms and then chemotherapy would
have a much easier job; you could use lower doses and [the chemotherapy
would be] less toxic," he said.

DCA affects cancer cells without affecting normal ones, he added.

the inexpensive drug has been used on both healthy and ill patients for
30 years, it can be immediately tested on people suffering from cancer,
Dr. Michelakis said.

But because DCA is not patented and is not
owned by a pharmaceutical company, it will be a challenge to find
funding to begin clinical trials, he said.

found here.

Scientists Encode Message into Bacterial DNA

Japanese scientists have developed a technique that can encode 100-bit messages into the DNA of common bacteria. The bacteria replicate and pass the message down from generation to generation for at least thousands of years. Because there are millions or more copies of the message it can survive gradual degradation or mutuations (so they claim). Perhaps by taking a sample of the message across a large number of descendant bacteriums any errors or mutations can be detected and corrected. The message that was encoded was ""e=mc2 1905".

I’ve written about the potential of storing messages in DNA in the past here, and here.

What’s interesting of course is that since this is possible it begs the question of whether there are already messages encoded into the DNA of various living things on Earth? We might want to look at E Coli, or other common organisms, or perhaps human, dolphin, and whale DNA. We might also want to look at birds and lizards since they come down more directly from dinosaurs. Who knows — maybe a long long time ago someone left us messages there, or their signature at least.

There are two places that I think it is most likely that we will first receive messages from aliens, if we ever do:

  1. Our own DNA (or that of other living species on Earth)
  2. The Internet. It’s the logical place to establish communication with us. Perhaps via a Myspace page…

New Findings Overturn our Understanding of How Neurons Communicate

Thanks to Bram for pointing me to this article about how new research indicates that communication in the brain is quite different than we thought. Essentially neurons may release neurotransmitters all along axons, not just within synapses. This may enable new forms of global communication or state changes within the brain, beyond the "circuit model" of neuronal signaling that has been the received view for the last 100 years. It also may open up a wide range of new drugs and discoveries in brain science.

Frequent Mobile Phone Use Linked to Tumor

If you or your children use cell phones frequently, consider getting earphones…

Long-term users of mobile phones are significantly
more likely to develop a certain type of brain tumour on the side of
the head where they hold their handsets, according to new research.

large-scale study found that those who had regularly used mobiles for
longer than 10 years were almost 40 per cent more likely to develop
nervous system tumours called gliomas near to where they hold their

New Cancer Wonder Drug: No Pharma Will Fund It Because it Can't be Patented

A new "miracle drug" appears to cure many types of cancers in a novel way. But the catch is no pharmaceutical company will fund research in it because it can’t be patented! Maybe it’s time to start a government agency or a non-profit that funds research and development, and distribution of, wonder drugs that are not patentable, for the public good. They could sell the drugs at cost as a non-profit — so they would recover their investment, without making a profit. If the Gates Foundation really wanted to help cure the world’s diseases this is a model for how they could do it. We can’t rely only on for-profit big-pharma ventures to solve all our problems. As this case illustrates, there are potential solutions that are not only effective but also inexpensive, which are falling through the cracks because they are not defensible exclusive commerical product opportunites.

Major Breakthrough Revolutionizes Genetics

Scientists have discovered a dramatic variation in the genetic
make-up of humans that could lead to a fundamental reappraisal of what
causes incurable diseases and could provide a greater understanding of


The discovery has astonished scientists studying the human genome – the
genetic recipe of man. Until now it was believed the variation between
people was due largely to differences in the sequences of the
individual "letters" of the genome.

It now appears much of the variation is explained instead by people
having multiple copies of some key genes that make up the human genome.

Until now it was assumed that the human genome, or "book of life",
is largely the same for everyone, save for a few spelling differences
in some of the words. Instead, the findings suggest that the book
contains entire sentences, paragraphs or even whole pages that are
repeated any number of times.

The findings mean that instead of humanity being 99.9 per cent
identical, as previously believed, we are at least 10 times more
different between one another than once thought – which could explain
why some people are prone to serious diseases.

Read the rest here.

Cryotherapy — Freeze Yourself, For Health

And now for some other science news. A new technique called cryotherapy is emerging in which people subject themselves to short bursts of extreme cold, in order to rejuvenate the body:

It’s minus 120 degrees and all I’m wearing is a hat and socks.
Cryotherapy is the latest treatment for a range of illnesses including
arthritis, osteoporosis, and even MS. New Age madness or a genuine
medical breakthrough?

A World Without Elephants

This is so sad. Elephants are increasingly being wiped out due to encroachment by nearby human populations, and also by inept human attempts to help them — and of course by poaching. As their species is increasingly backed into a dead-end corner, and as older elephants are separated from their herds, younger elephants are developing psychological disorders and are becoming violent. Meanwhile female elephants are not learning to rear their young properly, leading to developmental disorders and social problems that then ripple from generation to generation. All of this is adding up to a downward spiral for elephants worldwide — and in fact, as the article illustrates, elephants in completely separate communites around the world are starting to exhibit signs of "going crazy."  I’ve always loved elephants and I wish there was something that could be done.

Humanity is so out of balance with the rest of planet. I’m a realist though — I don’t believe that governments, or even the majority of people in the world, will ever just sacrifice their own gain for the good of the environment or any other species. Only if it is clearly tied to their survival or personal gain, will most people and governments "feel the pain" enough to change their behavior.

The solution to the tragedy of the commons is to privatize, or to somehow connect what happens in the commons to everyone’s survival and benefit. Locally, elephant survival and well-being could be assured if the local government and people were paid to maintain them as a world resource. I think that there really should be a form of global taxation whereby every government pays into a fund that is then used to pay certain local communities around endangered resources and species to protect and steward them.

If there was a way to turn their environments and endangered species into resources that earned money for them (more money than they could earn by destroying them), then they would finally be motivated to take care of them. I doubt that any other kind of solution will ultimately work. Maybe I’m too cynical or too much of a realist or a pragmatist. But I really do think this solution would work, not just for the elephants, but the rainforests, the whales, coral reefs and fisheries, etc.

Playing Proteins as Songs Helps Researchers Hear Patterns

All living things are made up of proteins. Each protein is a string of
amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids, and each protein can
consist of dozens to thousands of them.

Scientists write down these amino acid sequences as series of
text letters. Clark and her colleagues assign musical notes to the
different values of the amino acids in each sequence. The result is
music in the form of "protein songs."

By listening to the songs, scientists and students alike can
hear the structure of a protein. And when the songs of the same protein
from different species are played together, their similarities and
differences are apparent to the ear.

"It’s an illustration transferred into a medium people will
find more accessible than just [text] sequences," Clark said. "If you
look at protein sequences, if you just read those as they are written
down, recorded in a database, it’s hard to get a sense for the

When people look at a page full of text corresponding to
protein sequences, Clark explained, they tend spot clusters of letters
but fail to see the larger pattern.

"If you play [the protein song for that sequence] you get that
sense of the pattern much more strongly," she said. "That’s my feeling
at least. You hear stuff you can’t see."

From National Geographic

The Next Sexual Revolution?

This article is an over-the-top and somewhat gonzo review of an experimental nasal-spray that promises to revolutionize sex. It is currently in clinical trials. The very idea of nasal spray would seem to be one of the bigger turn-offs there is, but in this case they’ve found the override button. The writer gushes that it could be the next big thing and that it will make everyone want to tear of their clothes and jump each other, etc. Hilarious. I probably should buy stock in this company!

Is There Room for The Soul? – Good Article on Cognitive Science

This is a surprisingly good article on the nature of consciousness — providing a survey of the current state-of-the-art in cognitive science research. It covers the question from a number of perspectives and interviews many of the leading current researchers.

New Study: TV May Cause Autism

This study is strange. But plausible.

Today, Cornell University researchers are reporting
what appears to be a statistically significant relationship between
autism rates and television watching by children under the age of 3.
The researchers studied autism incidence in California, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, and Washington state. They found that as cable television
became common in California and Pennsylvania beginning around 1980,
childhood autism rose more in the counties that had cable than in the
counties that did not. They further found that in all the Western
states, the more time toddlers spent in front of the television, the
more likely they were to exhibit symptoms of autism disorders.

From: Slate

A Proposal to Make the Media (and Society) Better

I am concerned by what I’m viewing in our national media lately. Viewed from
outside (and also from wihtin the USA), it would appear that our nation
is obsessed with, and plagued by, an increasing spree of horrible crimes and
abuses of human rights. Is this really what it is like to live in
America, or is this simply the media’s extremely biased reporting?

The media of any social organization, whether a small community or an entire nation, serves as the primary means by which the members of that organization understand and assess the state of the whole. As such the media serves a function to a collective that is similar to "self-awareness" in an individual person. Self-awareness is a feedback loop. It not only serves as a mirror by which an organization can view reflections of its state, it also conditions the planning and execution of further actions by its organization. When people look in the mirror of the media, they not only understand the system they are in, but they also may make choices and further actions based on what they see there.

The pivotal role of media as the central influencer of societal psychology and behavior is often underestimated. And it is through this lens that I view the recent headlines, which are primarily focused on school killing sprees and abuse of children as of late — with sadness and concern. By sensationalizing such tragedies, and providing lurid details over and over again, the media is actually contributing to the ongoing proliferation of these same behaviors. While I’m not suggesting that censorship is a better alternative, I do think that leading mass media organizations, in their blind quest for more attention and ad dollars, are behaving irresponsibly by sensationalizing — indeed almost celebrating — murder, torture, sexual abuse, and other horrible acts as if they are the latest attractions in some kind of societal variety show.

These atrocities should be reported, but the style and manner in which they are reported should be the opposite of sensationalism. They should be more like funerals — which is after all what these stories are really about. There should be an element of sadness, respect for those affected, concern for those who might read or view such images and stories, and restraint. In particular details of how various horrible crimes were planned and executed are not necessary and not beneficial in telling the story — they only serve to inspire, trigger and teach would-be copycats to do the same thing. Furthermore by rewarding perpetrators of such crimes with massive publicity (which in many cases is what such egomaniacs are hoping to achieve by committing their crimes) the media is actually playing right into their hands.

As usual I have a radical proposal to fix this: What if the media gave exposure to stories in direct proportion to the number of people actually affected by those stories?

What if stories were evaluated on several dimensions to determine how much exposure to give them — for example, geographic range, number of people directly impacted, political relevance, etc? The size of a story would therefore be determined by its real effect on the population. Contrast this to what the news media does today where in fact the prominence of a story is often inversely proportional to the number of people directly impacted by it. The media currently amplifies the most shocking news, regardless of how many people are directly affected or involved. A shocking crime that directly affected only 2 people is quickly amplified to the main national headline of the day for a population of 300 million. That is simply out of balance with reality.

For example, horrible as they are, the recent school killings only directly affect a relatively tiny percentage of the national population: So why should they be the main focus of the national news headlines for weeks on end? According to this proposal, such stories would be mere blips on the collective radar. They would not be headline news for the entire nation, and/or if they were they would quickly fall out of the headlines. I’m not downplaying the importance of these stories to the affected people and communities — nor am I downplaying the broader significance of the trends they may be indicative of — I’m simply pointing out that these stories, tragic as they may be, get disproportionately too much national media exposure compared to other stories that affect much larger segments of the population such as for example — stories related to the economy, the environment, the war and upcoming elections, etc.

Continue reading

Study: Woman in Coma Able to Respond With Thoughts


A severely brain-damaged woman in an unresponsive, vegetative state
showed clear signs of conscious awareness on brain imaging tests
researchers are reporting today, in a finding that could have
far-reaching consequences for how unconscious patients are cared for
and diagnosed.

In response to commands, the
patient’s brain flared with activity, lighting the same language and
planning regions that are active when healthy people hear the commands.
Previous studies had found similar activity in partly conscious
patients, who occasionally respond to commands, but never before in
someone who was totally


This opens up a whole new range of possibilities. For example, what if there was a way to fit a comatose patient with a brain activity sensor that could enable them to think of certain things in order to trigger things in their environment? For example, suppose that the woman above could think of playing tennis and that would cause the radio to turn on or off in her hospital room? Similarly, if she thought about moving around her house, suppose that could alert a nurse that she needed pain medication or to be repositioned, etc.? This could provide a way for comatose people to communicate with their caregivers and have some control over their environments. It might even be possible to teach them things to think about in order to indicate "yes" and "no" answers to questions. So someone could ask them questions about what they experience and they could answer yes or no. It might even be possible to teach them to communicate letters so they could spell out messages.

The whole premise that a comatose person has no conscious awareness or sensation may be overturned by this. Perhaps they are much more aware than we thought but they are simply unable to control their bodies in order to speak or move? If that is the case, they must be desperate for a way to communicate and this could be the answer.

A Village Where Aging is Sped Up

Here’s an interesting video about a village in India where men have been stricken for over a decade with a disease that causes them to age much faster. Nobody knows what is causing this. Men in their 30’s appear to be 80. It’s strange. Watch the video. Perhaps if someone were to collect some DNA and compare it to DNA of people without this syndrome a cure or at least an explanation could be found. This might also reveal what is different, if anything, about the DNA of people in this village that causes them to age — and if a specific gene or set of genes is involved, this could perhaps provide a key to slowing down aging in healthy people.

New Discovery: Enzymes Capable of Quantum Tunneling

Drug discovery meets quantum mechanics in this article about recent evidence for quantum tunneling in enzymes:

SYDNEY, 25 August 2006: British scientists have found that enzymes
cheat time and space by quantum tunnelling – a much faster way of
travelling than the classical way – but whether or not perplexing
quantum theories can be applied to the biological world is still hotly

Until now, no one knew just how the enzymes speed up the reactions,
which in some cases are up to a staggering million times faster.