Reject this incompetent Trump appointee

Sam Clovis standing next to Trump during the campaign.
Trump has nominated a non-scientist to be chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is an outrageous slap in the face to science. It's also a slap in the face to Congress.

As I predicted back in May, Trump has nominated Sam Clovis, a former right-wing radio talk show host and failed Senate candidate from Iowa, to be the chief scientist of the USDA. ProPublica was the first to break this story, and they also pointed out that Clovis was a vocal climate change denialist. Clovis has an undergraduate degree in politics and graduate training in business, but he has no formal training in science at all.

Clovis does have one qualification, though. As ProPublica pointed out, he has been a "fiery pro-Trump advocate on television." Sounds like a good candidate for a chief scientist job to me.

Fortunately (perhaps), the Senate has to approve this appointment. The Senate itself stipulated, in a bill that Congress passed in 2008, that the USDA's chief scientist (the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics) must be appointed from
"distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics."
The law also says, just to make it crystal clear, that the Under Secretary "shall hold the title of Chief Scientist of the Department."

Why is this appointment so wrong? I'll repeat what I wrote back in May:
Overseeing the USDA's research programs requires strong expertise in biological science. A non-scientist has no basis for deciding which research is going well, or what questions need further study, or which questions present the most promising avenues for research. A non-scientist is simply incompetent to choose among them–and I mean this in the literal sense of the word; i.e., not having the knowledge or training to do the job. This does not mean that I think Sam Clovis is incompetent at other things; I don't know him and he might be very capable in other areas. Among other problems, a non-scientist leader of a scientific agency will be incapable of using scientific expertise to set priorities, and instead can make up his own priorities.
If the Senate has any backbone at all–if Republicans are willing to show that they are capable of doing something other than rubber-stamping every action, no matter how damaging, of our self-absorbed, ignorant President–then they will turn down this nomination. Sam Clovis is so obviously unqualified that this should be easy to do.

Actually, if Mr. Clovis cared about the USDA's mission, he would recognize that he's the wrong man for the job and refuse the nomination. Even Dan Glickman, the former Secretary of Agriculture, said "I wouldn't be qualified for that job" (about himself–he's a lawyer) in a recent interview about Clovis' appointment. The current and previous Chief Scientists at the USDA have Ph.D.s and extensive scientific publication records. Mr. Clovis does not. (Note that when I wrote to Mr. Clovis in May to ask about his pending appointment, he declined to respond on the record.)

The Senate's Republicans have confirmed all of Trump's nominees so far, and I fear they will rubber-stamp this one as well. Let's hope that a few of them (and only 3 have to object, assuming all 48 Democrats vote no) realize that appointing a non-scientist to be Chief Scientist of the USDA is a slap in the face not only to science, but to Congress itself, because the appointment scoffs at Congress's own law, passed during the George W. Bush administration.

Trump can find another political appointment for Sam Clovis, as he has for other Trump loyalists. But appointing a former talk radio host, a non-scientist who has never published a single scientific paper, as the Chief Scientist of the USDA is a gross insult to the thousands of hard-working real scientists at the USDA, and to millions more who depend on, and benefit from, the USDA's research programs. Senators: do the right thing and tell Trump to appoint a real scientist to this job.

Will this be the end of college football? The risk of brain damage is startlingly high.

Parents send their kids off to college with high hopes and great expectations. Universities, in turn, have a responsibility to provide an education in an environment that supports and also challenges the students.

Universities are not supposed to encourage activities that may result in permanent brain damage.

And yet, they do. As revealed in a new report by Jesse Mez and colleagues from Boston University, just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a shockingly high number of former football players, from both college and professional teams, suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) later in life, likely as a result of their years playing football.

The study authors looked at 202 deceased former football players whose brains had been donated for research, and found that 87% of them had some degree of CTE. The highest rates of CTE were among former NFL players, which affected 110 out of 111 players. CTE was nearly as bad in college football players, though, with 91% of them (48 out of 53) suffering from CTE.

Over half of the high school players (27) had "severe pathology." The authors noted that in deceased players with severe CTE, the most common cause of death was neurodegenerative disease. As they also explain:
"There is substantial evidence that CTE is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease."
In other words, CTE is a death sentence.

The authors of the study stated their conclusions carefully, noting that the study was not randomized, and that players and their families may have been motivated to participate because they were concerned about a possible link between football and CTE. Nonetheless, even if the risk of CTE is much lower than found in this study, universities should be taking a very hard look at the risks that they are exposing their students to.

Or to put it another way, is it okay to ask young men to play football if the risk of permanent brain damage is only 50%? What if it's just 10 or 20%? Is that okay? Is football that important?

Readers of this column know my answer: no. College is not about football, and if it disappears completely, universities will be just fine. The University of Chicago eliminated its football program in 1939, and brought it back in decades later as much-reduced program, now in NCAA Division III. The university itself has remained a powerhouse, routinely ranked in the top universities in the country academically.

As I've written before, football is corrupting our universities, blinding them to their true mission (education and research) in the pursuit of a profitable entertainment business. University presidents seem helpless to stop or even slow down the enormous machine that is big-time college football. For example, in 2015 the University of Maryland (where I used to be a professor) paid millions of dollars to buy out the football coach, so that he could quit a year early and the university could pay millions more to a new coach. Ironically, Maryland had done exactly the same thing in 2011 to buy out the previous coach, at a time when the entire state had hiring and salary freezes in place. None of these actions benefitted the university or its students.

All the while, universities pretend that they are educating the players. Here's a quote from Bleacher Report's interview with star UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen:
"Look, football and school don't go together. They just don't.... No one in their right mind should have a football player's schedule, and go to school."
This from one of the top college football players in the country. (On this topic, Taylor Branch's 2011 exposé in The Atlantic is particularly worth reading. Or this article by a disillusioned former Michigan fan.)

Universities now face an ethical dilemma far more serious than merely taking advantage of athletes' skills to entertain football fans and pay inflated salaries to coaches. The JAMA study reveals that by running a football program, universities are not just robbing young men of four years that might be better spent getting an education and preparing for life: they might be robbing their students of life itself.

ClinicalTrials.gov, a great resource for patients, is being abused to market bad medicine

This wasn't supposed to happen.

Since 1997, the National Institutes of Health has maintained a database of clinical trials, ClinicalTrials.gov, that lists trials under way in the U.S. and throughout the world. It's an invaluable resource, providing a single source for patients trying to find where to get the newest experimental treatments, and for doctors and scientists looking to enroll patients in their trials.

In recent years, companies offering questionable stem cell therapies got the bright idea that they could describe their treatments as clinical trials, register them on ClinicalTrials.gov, and thereby get some free advertising. Most stem cell treatments are not FDA-approved, and many have little or no data supporting their effectiveness, but clinics can still register their "trials" on the NIH site, making it appear that they are supported and endorsed by the government. A new study by Leigh Turner, published this week in Regenerative Medicine, reveals the growing extent of this problem.

What's especially worrisome is that some stem-cell treatment clinics charge patients very high fees to participate in their "trials." Some patients (perhaps most) don't know that legitimate clinical trials virtually never charge fees.

Consider this example, reported last July by Emily Bazar at Kaiser Health News: California resident Linda Smith has knee osteoarthritis, and was looking for treatments that could restore her knees to health without surgery. She found a stem cell trial at ClinicalTrials.gov that was run by StemGenex, a clinic in La Jolla. The clinic promised it could inject stem cells into her knees to replace lost cartilage. When she inquired about signing onto the trial, Smith was shocked to learn that StemGenex wanted a $14,000 fee for her to participate.

StemGenex claimed that “The actual treatment is not part of the study protocol”: you pay for the treatment, they explained, and the study is merely a followup to see how you did afterwards.

What nonsense. I checked the StemGenex site today (a year after the quotes above), and they proudly boast that they are registered on ClinicalTrials.gov, and that
"Stem cell therapy for Osteoarthritis is being studied for efficacy in improving the complications in patients through the use of their own stem cells."
Hmm. This sure sounds like the study is about the treatment. StemGenex's site strongly suggests that their therapy works wonders:
"The goal of each stem cell treatment is to inject the stem cells into the joint to create cartilage (chondryte cells)."
Sounds good, right? If only it were true.

I've got bad knees myself, so I've been following the research on stem cell treatments for cartilage replacement for years. I would love to be able to get a simple injection that could repair my damaged cartilage. Alas, though, no one has yet developed an effective stem cell treatment for bad knees, although it is plausible, and legitimate trials are under way right now (here's one).

Unfortunately, the lack of evidence hasn't stopped clinics from offering stem cell injections right now, accompanied by all sorts of promises that are not backed by science. It's not just knee injections, either: this past March, Sharon Begley at STAT reported on three women who were blinded by stem cell therapy injected into their eyes.

Most patients think, mistakenly, that if a clinic offers stem cell therapy, it must have been approved by the FDA. That's not true–clinics offering these therapies don't have FDA approval, and they argue that they don't need it (which might be correct, but that's a topic for another day).

Patients also assume that trials listed on ClincialTrials.gov must have been approved by some government agency, but that's not true either. The site is a clearinghouse that uses the honor system, nothing more, to ensure that trials listed there are legitimate. If you read their Disclaimer (but who does?), you find that studies listed on the site are not necessarily funded by NIH or approved by the FDA.

Turner's study found 7 trials that openly state they charge patients to participate. At least they're honest about it. Turner found many more (including several run by StemGenex) that appear to charge patients despite not explaining their policy on ClinicalTrials.gov. For example, a stem cell trial by Cell Surgical Network plans to enroll 3000 patients and will charge each of them $6000 or more to participate. As Turner writes
"Cell Surgical Network uses its registered ClinicalTrials.gov study as a powerful marketing device. Press releases and the websites of the clinics that are part of this network emphasize that the study is registered on ClinicalTrials.gov."
NIH needs to start policing this site before the situation gets worse. Coincidentally, I know just where they can find the resources to do it. NIH just announced that it's about to start regulating all sorts of basic science studies as clinical trials, a move that will cause a "massive amount of dysfunction and paperwork," according to one MIT scientist. Rather than over-regulating basic science, NIH should devote those same resources to cleaning up and then continuously monitoring the ClinicalTrials.gov database.

What these stem cell clinics are doing is not a clinical trial, and advertising their services through ClinicalTrials.gov is reprehensible. For now, if a doctor or clinic tries to charge you to participate in a clinical trial, your best course may be to find another trial–and another doctor.

CRISPR gene editing controversy - does it cause unexpected mutations?

Just over a month ago, a short paper appeared in Nature Methods saying that the gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9 has a big problem: it creates unexpected mutations all over the genome. This was startling news for a technique that has been hailed worldwide as a dramatic breakthrough, not only because it is the easiest gene-editing method yet invented, but also because it is (supposedly) very precise.

This new paper, by Kellie Schaefer and colleagues, found hundreds of mutations (in experimental mice) that weren't supposed to be there. The results contradicted earlier studies that showed CRISPR caused very few of these "off-target" mutations. One of the authors, Stephen Tsang, commented that
"We feel it's critical that the scientific community consider the potential hazards of all off-target mutations caused by CRISPR."
Not surprising, the resulting news headlines were gloomy. The stock in three companies trying to commercialize gene editing–Editas Medicine, Intellia Therapeutics, and CRISPR Therapeutics–all fell sharply.  (Interestingly, the stocks started falling on May 24, and bottomed out on May 31. The paper appeared online on May 30.) Scientists involved with these companies quickly responded, arguing that the study was flawed, but of course those scientists have a lot of money at stake.

Who was right? Well, a new paper by Caleb Lareau and colleagues, just released in the bioRxiv preprint repository, re-examines the same data and concludes that CRISPR is just fine. I've read both papers so you don't have to. Here's what seems to be going on.

The study by Schaefer et al. used CRISPR-Cas9 to create mutations in two mice (called F03 and F05), and then sequenced their genomes. They also sequenced the genome of a third mouse, called FVB. All three mice were supposed to be genetically identical.

Then they compared all three genomes to a "reference" mouse to find mutations. (Aside: this is something my own lab does all the time, so I know the techniques well.) They found over 1,500 mutations in each mouse (which wasn't surprising, because the reference mouse differs from their 3 lab animals), but they found hundreds more mutations in the two CRISPR-edited mice. That was the main surprise from Schaefer's paper, and it's the basis for their claim that CRISPR causes numerous off-target mutations.

I had a big problem with this claim even before reading Lareau's paper. Just TWO mice? That's a ridiculously tiny sample. But I digress.

Lareau et al. pointed out, correctly, that Schaefer's conclusion depends on the mice being genetically identical. But what if the two CRISPR mice (F03 and F05) were closer to each other than to the third mouse, FVB? (It's analogous to comparing two siblings with a first cousin, although these mice are much more inbred than any humans.) In that case, the result falls apart.

Fortunately, Schaefer et al. made all their data available (props to them for doing that), so Lareau could answer this question quite precisely.

It turns out that F03 and F05 are much closer to each other than either one is to FVB.  Lareau discovered that the two CRISPR mice share thousands of mutations that FVB doesn't have.

What does this mean? Lareau and colleagues conclude that the "unexpected" mutations in the CRISPR-edited mice were already there before the experiment began, and were not caused by gene editing. As they put it,
"the CRISPR-treated embryos most likely already harbored these private SNPs and indels prior to nuclease treatment whereas the control mouse did not."
In other words, it seems highly unlikely that CRISPR gene editing caused hundreds of unexpected mutations in these mice.

Even though CRISPR is being over-hyped right now, it is nonetheless genuinely exciting technology. Nature Methods was probably too eager to publish a controversial result, an all-too-common problem with big-name journals, and they seem to have done a poor job managing peer review. (Aside: I'd love to see what the reviewers said. Did they miss the obvious problems, or did the journal editors ignore the reviewers? I doubt we'll ever know.)

A final note: this kerfuffle illustrates the tremendous value of rapid publication through pre-print archives. Lareau et al.'s paper appeared a few days ago (July 5) on bioRxiv, along with all the data they used to support their arguments. We'll probably see a journal version too, but that will take months. Getting this paper out faster was a win for science.

(Postscript: two of the authors on the bioRxiv paper have financial interests in CRISPR technology companies, which they disclosed in the paper. I have no financial interests in any of these companies.)

Gwyneth! How did you learn so much about health?

Gwyneth Paltrow has invented stickers that promote healing. Yes, stickers. Little circular stick-on thingies that you might give to your 1st-grader as a reward for doing her homework.

Gwyneth, though, has discovered something much deeper about stickers. If you make them with just the right materials, and then stick them on your body in the right places, they "rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies."

(A quick warning: if you follow the links in this article, put down your coffee first. You might laugh so hard that you'll spill it all over yourself.)

Until a day or two ago, Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop website–a "lifestyle" business that sells all things Gwyneth–advertised these stickers as using "NASA space suit material," which presumably was the source of their magic healing properties. Then Gizmodo called someone at NASA to check out this claim, and got a very clear answer.

Nope. Goop's stickers are not made of space suit material. (Not that space suit material has healing properties in the first place–it doesn't.) Gizmodo's quote from a former NASA scientist, Mark Shelhamer, sums it up nicely:
“Wow,” Shelhamer told Gizmodo. “What a load of BS this is.”   
Goop quickly updated their site, and now they don't claim anything about NASA space suits in their stickers. But they didn't dial back any of their magical healing claims. Here's what Goop says now, in an article called "Wearable Stickers that Promote Healing (Really!)":
"Human bodies operate at an ideal energetic frequency, but everyday stresses and anxiety can throw off our internal balance, depleting our energy reserves and weakening our immune systems. Body Vibes stickers come pre-programmed to an ideal frequency, allowing them to target imbalances."
Wow. What gobbledygook. I see what that NASA scientist meant. But wait, there's more! Goop tells us:
"Studies have shown that when your frequency slips, your immune system is compromised, which opens the door to getting sick."
Studies? No such studies exist. People don't have a "frequency," and there's nothing to "slip." I think it's fair to say that the Goop claims about these stickers are so ridiculous that they're not even wrong.

These stickers are powerful, though, so you must be careful. Goop warns that
"We recommend starting with 1 or 2 for sensitive people. Wearing more than 4 may cause some dilution of the individual frequencies."
Oh boy.

Paltrow sells these magic stickers (and all of her products) using pictures of beautiful models doing healthy activities while wearing stickers. This is part of Goop's appeal: Paltrow is suggesting, in essence, "I'm beautiful and healthy and I'm in my forties, so I know the medical secrets that will keep you beautiful too."

Of course, the special Goop stickers aren't cheap: they cost $60 for a 10-pack.

Not surprisingly, Goop sells lots of overpriced dietary supplements too, such as a bottle of multivitamins with fish oil for $90, which comes with claims about keeping the immune system strong. Almost no one needs these supplements, and they don't do anything for your immune system, as I've explained before.

It took me just a few seconds to find that you can get a sheet with about 50 "dreams come true" stickers at stickersgalore.com for less than $2. These don't come with any wild health claims, but they do make kids happy. I recommend trying these before you get the Goop stickers.

Goop's (and Gwyneth's) claims about their stickers are so ridiculous, so laughably nutty, that I can't really feel sorry for the people who fall for them. Anyone who can afford to waste $60 for a pack of stickers probably has too much money and not enough sense. It's just too bad that they're giving their money to a wealthy actress rather than donating it to some worthy cause.

Finally, I should note that I've always liked Paltrow as an actress, in movies such as Emma and Shakespeare in Love from the 1990s through the recent Iron Man franchise. But why would her acting skills make her an expert on human health? They don't.

Apple's next iPhone iOS will save lives

There's no way that we can convince people to stop texting while driving. It's incredibly dangerous, selfish, and reckless. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving killed at least 3,477 people in 2015 alone. Many states have outlawed texting while driving, including my own state of Maryland, but every day I pass people on busy roads who are looking at their phones.

The only solution is technological. The phone itself needs to stop distracting you while you're driving. People aren't going to put their phones down voluntarily.

Apple's iOS 11, coming this fall, finally offers a solution. It may not solve the problem entirely, but it will likely save lives.
Apple's IOS 11, coming in the fall of 2017,
will offer Do Not Disturb while driving
The solution is very simple, technically speaking. Your phone already knows when it's on a roadway, and it knows that it's moving. So the phone's software–iOS, if it's an Apple phone–can simply disable any apps that might cause distractions.

Apple's preview of iOS11 says it will do more than that. It will not only silence all incoming calls, text messages, and other notifications, but it will text people back automatically and tell them that you're driving.

You'll still be able to use maps and GPS for directions, which is an extremely useful feature that many people just can't do without (and that doesn't cause traffic accidents).

This is a great idea that is long overdue. Apparently, Apple couldn't resist allowing passengers in the car to override the do-not-disturb mode, which I think is a pretty terrible idea. I doubt that the phone will recognize when a passenger just hands it to the driver, but I'll have to wait and see how Apple implemented this override feature. I hope it's really hard to do.

iOS 11 is coming in the fall. Google hasn't yet said anything about whether Android phones will have a similar feature, but I hope they will. This is desperately needed, and it will save lives.

Google, the ball is in your court.

Germany takes action to stem measles outbreak. Anti-vaxxers to blame–again.

Measles is on the rise in Europe, driven by "vaccine gaps" which in turn are due to misinformation about the benefits of vaccines. Vaccines are possibly the single greatest contribution to human health in the past century. Literally millions of people are alive today who would not be, thanks to vaccines.

And yet: vaccine rates have dropped in recent years in multiple countries. In March, the BBC reported that measles had become endemic (meaning that it is self-sustaining, continuing to spread within the country) in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland and Ukraine. The worst measles outbreak is in Romania, which reported over 3,400 cases and 17 deaths in just the first 3 months of this year.

Now measles is spreading in Germany, which is scrambling to contain it. Germany had 504 cases through mid-April, versus just 33 cases for the same period last year. At least one person, a young mother of three children, has died. The primary reason for the spread of the disease, as reported by the German news outlet RT, is unvaccinated individuals, and the reason their numbers are growing is simple: the anti-vaccine movement.

In the U.S., the anti-vaccine movement caused the worst measles outbreak in 20 years in 2015. The outbreak in Germany appears even worse, despite the fact that parents can be fined as much as €2500 ($2800) for failing to vaccinate their children. In a remarkable effort to try to get this outbreak under control, the German parliament has decided to require kindergartens to report parents who don't vaccinate their kids. Let's hope this works.

Vaccination is safe and remarkably effective, but the anti-vax movement is furiously trying to convince parents not to vaccinate. Their latest gambit is "Vaxxed," a conspiracy-mongering anti-vaccine screen produced by Andrew Wakefield, the notorious ex-doctor who published a fraudulent (and later retracted) study claiming that MMR vaccines caused autism. Nearly 20 years later, despite Wakefield losing his medical license because of his "elaborate fraud," he continues to push his debunked claims.

Fortunately, many people are now pushing back. Just last week, noted New Zealand physician Dr. Lance O'Sullivan jumped up on stage at a screening of "Vaxxed" to warn people in the audience that they were being defrauded. O'Sullivan was named New Zealander of the Year in 2014 for his efforts to bring health care to disadvantaged people in rural areas. I will close with his words from a Radio New Zealand story describing the dangers of vaccine refusal:
"We are trying to save a child's life, we put it on a helicopter, it flies to Starship Hospital. The kidneys are failing, its heart's failing, its lungs are failing. All because we didn't put a bloody $7.50 meningococcal vaccine into that child's thigh."