Field of Science

Nobel laureate joins the autism cranks at AutismOne conference

If you're reading this from anywhere but Chicago, you just missed the Autism One conference, which ends today.  This conference, run by Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue, purports to tell parents "the truth" about autism.

The conference is a veritable festival of unproven claims, offering a powerful but false message of hope to parents who are desperately searching for new treatments for their children.  It's also a nexus for anti-vaccinationists, who run special seminars educating parents about how to get vaccine exemptions so that they can enroll their unvaccinated children in public schools.

A look at the presentations reveals that rather than presenting "the truth," one speaker after another is making unsupported, unscientific claims and then offering their own special therapy.  The one thing that most of these presentations have in common is that the speaker is making money from selling their so-called treatments.  For example, Anat Baniel offers her self-named "Anat Baniel method" and is promoting it through ads in the conference program.  Other speakers are offering special diets, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and in perhaps the most damaging treatment, Mark and David Geier's chemical castration therapy.  Mark Blaxill is there, still pushing the thoroughly disproven link between mercury and autism, and hawking his book on the topic.

The other major theme of the conference is conspiracies: how the government, big pharma, and the scientific establishment are all conspiring to hide "the truth" about autism, which the speaker will reveal to the audience. Coincidentally, many of the speakers also offer treatments, for a fee.

This year's speakers include Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, as usual, but also a new entry: Luc Montagnier.

Jenny McCarthy has been a leader of the anti-vaccine movement for over a decade.  She's a former Playboy playmate and MTV host, with no medical qualifications whatsoever, who is convinced that vaccines caused her son's autism.  She's been spreading her anti-vaccine message very effectively, with particular help from Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, who gave her prime television exposure countless times.  Oprah even offered McCarthy her own show, until McCarthy ditched Oprah for NBC.

Andrew Wakefield, the thoroughly discredited doctor who falsified data in order to push his false hypothesis that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine - whose medical license was revoked in the UK, and whose famous 1998 paper on autism and vaccines was retracted after it was shown to be fraudulent - claims that his talk "offers solutions [that] will be ignored by those in power and the more dire of its predictions will result."  Too bad I missed that one.

It's no surprise that Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield, leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, are speaking at AutismOne.  Much more surprising is the presence of Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, co-discoverer of the link between the HIV virus and AIDS.  What is he doing at this festival of pseudoscience?

Well, apparently Montagnier has gone off the deep end into pseudoscience himself.  He claims that his new group, Chronimed, has discovered in autistic children
"DNA sequences that emit, in certain conditions, electromagnetic waves.  The analysis by molecular biology techniques allows us to identify these electromagnetic waves as coming from … bacterial species."
What the heck?  In what seems to be a desperate effort to stay relevant, Montagnier is promoting wild theories with little scientific basis, and now he is taking advantage of vulnerable parents (see his appeal here) to push a therapy of long-term antibiotic treatment for autistic children.

This is truly a wacky theory.  Montagnier hasn't been able to publish this in a proper journal, for a very good reason: it's nonsense.   He claims that quantum field theory - an area of physics in which he has no qualifications - explains how electromagnetic waves emanating from DNA can explain not only autism, but also Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.  Montagnier makes these claims and more in a self-published paper that he posted on arXiv.

This isn't Montagnier's first crazy idea: just a year ago, he claimed that DNA molecules can teleport between test tubes, also based on some kind of quantum hocus pocus.  This crackpot claim should have been ignored, and it would have been, if not for the fact that Montagnier is a Nobel laureate.  He's also endorsed homeopathy, another quack treatment.

This is a sad coda to a brilliant medical career.  Not only is Montagnier espousing junk science and tarnishing his own reputation, but he is lending credibility to the AutismOne conference, which is a festival of hucksters and snake-oil salesman, offering unproven, ineffective, and even harmful treatments to vulnerable children and their parents.

Autism is a complex, difficult disease.  Thousands of researchers are pouring their hearts and souls into understanding the disease and developing new treatments.  AutismOne does a terrible disservice to autistic children by siphoning away time, energy, and money that could instead go into real science.  We can only hope that it will fade away.

1098 reasons why women are genetically superior to men


Calico cats prefer Mother's Day

Everyone knows that women have two X chromosomes, while men have just one.  Instead of a second X, men have a Y chromosome. The X chromosome is far larger than Y, with 1098 genes  versus just 27 genes that are unique to the Y chromosome.

Well, one might argue, men have all the X chromosome genes too, so what's the advantage to having an extra copy?  It seems that we only need one copy of each of these 1098 X genes.

As it turns out, female mammals (not just humans) have a unique advantage over males: they get to choose, for each copy of those 1098 genes, which ones to use.  And they can pick and choose different ones along the X chromosome, sometimes using the gene (called an allele) from their own mother, other times using the allele from their father.  The other copy is turned off, through a remarkable process called X inactivation.

The female advantage is more than just the choice of which X chromosome to use.  An amazing feature of genetics is that females can use different genes in different cells.  The calico cat shown here is a beautiful illustration of this: early in development, some of the pigment cells in this cat chose the orange fur gene, while other cells chose the black fur gene.  As these cells divided, they created patches of black and orange fur.  As far as anyone can tell, these choices are random, which is why every calico cat has a different pattern of black and orange fur.

It's also why every calico cat is female.

So there you have it: women have over 1000 genes that offer a choice, while men are stuck with a single X chromosome.  Quite an advantage.  (Of course, we men can argue that those 27 Y chromosome genes must be pretty special too.)

Oh, and there's one more advantage women have over men: only women can be moms.  Happy Mother's Day!

Zinc still doesn't work very well for colds


Cold cure manufacturers continue to push zinc as a cure, despite the lack of evidence.  Today, the Washington Post reported, not for the first time, that taking zinc will shorten the duration a cold by three days in adults.  Sounds pretty good!  Only it's wrong.

The Post reporter apparently didn't really get past the abstract for the new study, which isn't actually a study at all, but just a review of 17 other studies.  The review appeared on May 8 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

ALL of the studies were funded by the companies that make zinc supplements, mostly large pharmaceutical companies.  (Big Pharma or Big Supp, they are often the same companies.)  Here's a partial list of the sponsors: Warner Lambert, McNeil Consumer Products, Weider Nutrition, Truett Laboratories, Bristol Myers, Berko Ilac, and Quigley.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!

One problem with the Washington Post summary is that the benefit wasn't really three days, even if you believe the results.  Although the study looked at 17 trials, the core analysis only used eight of them, all of which used patients with naturally acquired colds.  The average benefit was 1.6 days, not 3 days, and it was highly variable.  Reuters and Fox reported the story more accurately as "one and a half days" and pointed out that the effect was just over two and a half days in adults.

Somehow, though, the benefit disappeared in children.  Could this be because children don't care so much about telling the investigators what they want to hear?

And what about those trials that didn't use naturally occurring colds.  As I pointed out in a recent blog post, if you look at only the studies where the researchers intentionally gave people a cold, the effect vanishes.
"The more rigorously scientific studies, where you took a group of people and gave half of them zinc and half a placebo and inoculated their nose with a cold virus, found there were no differences," said Terence Davidson, director of the UC San Diego Nasal Dysfunction Clinic in a February interview.
None of this stops ProPhase (NasdaqGM: PRPH), maker of ColdEeze zinc products, from making this claim on their website:
"Cold-EEZE® has been clinically proven to shorten the duration of the common cold by nearly half."  
As evidence, their website points to three studies from 10-20 years ago.  They conveniently ignore the more recent studies that showed far less (possibly no) benefit.

The authors of the latest review article graded the quality of evidence for five different outcomes.  Their report card on these studies has one "Moderate" and four "Low" grades.  Moderate means "further research is likely to have an important impact on our confidence in the estimate of effect and may change the estimate.  Most of the grades were "low," which means
"further research is very likely to have an important impact on our confidence in the estimate of effect and is likely to change the estimate."  
So the authors themselves don't really trust their own study!  In the end, they conclude that "there is only a weak rationale" to recommend zinc.  And previous studies, not funded by supplement manufacturers, showed no benefit.  Who are you going to believe?

Save your money and use it to buy chicken soup instead.*

*The author receives no financial backing from the makers of chicken soup, although he does like it and would appreciate a free sample.

Falling 300 feet and living to tell about it


How far can a human being fall and survive?  Normally, not very far.  People usually survive falls from a height of 20-25 feet (6-8 meters), but above that, things get very deadly very fast.  A study done in Paris in 2005 looked at 287 victims of falls, and found that falls from 8 stories (30 meters) or higher were 100% fatal.

How about 300 feet? Last fall, a remarkable case report appeared in an little-noticed journal, the Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation, and Emergency Medicine. The article begins with this astonishing sentence:
"We report the case of a 28-year old rock climber who survived an 'unsurvivable' injury consisting of a vertical free fall from 300 feet onto a solid rock surface."
This is no ordinary case report.  The accident happened when a 28-year-old woman and her boyfriend, both experienced rock climbers, were climbing in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Both were wearing helmets.  The woman took the lead on the final pitch of a 300-foot (90-meter) climb.  At the very top, after securing the rope, her climbing harness failed.  She fell 200 feet straight down, hit a flat rock surface, then fell another 100 feet.  Her boyfriend climbed down as rapidly as he could, and found her at the bottom, alive.  This appears to be the highest vertical free fall onto a hard surface that a human has been documented to survive.

The list of the climber's injuries, described in detail in the article, is frighteningly long.  The article shows a picture of her, awake and off the respirator, on her 4th day in the hospital.  (The patient agreed to have her case published along with her photo.)  Despite her extensive injuries, including paralysis of both legs, she otherwise recovered remarkably well and "was transferred to her local community regional spinal cord rehabilitation center out-of-state at 2½ months after injury in excellent conditions."

The authors of the article focused on this question: if you fall a very, very long distance, how should you land?  The authors of the study concluded that a critical factor in the climber's survival was that she landed feet first.  As they wrote: " a fall on both feet represents the 'ideal' body to impact surface position with regard to survival from vertical falls."  Landing feet first allows the lower body to absorb most of the deceleration force, as they illustrated in the figure reproduced here.

This case reminds me of a famous paper from BMJ back in 2003: "Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials."  In that paper, G.C.S. Smith and J.P. Pell complained that no one has ever done a properly controlled experiment to determine if parachutes really work.
"We were unable to identify any randomised controlled trials of parachute intervention," they wrote.
They argued that "an adverse outcome after free fall is by no means inevitable," a point that the current study would seem to support.  However, I can't agree with Smith and Pell's conclusion: "We think that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence based medicine organised and participated in a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled, crossover trial of the parachute."