Tag Archives: news

You are what you eat; exceptions to the rules

This chestnut will appeal to the vegetarians. But we should all be aware. It turns out that when your mom told you that you are what you eat, it was more literally true than she probably believed.

Generally, what you eat gets broken down to rather small molecular bits, then built back up into the stuff that you are made of. Despite the fact that both cows and humans have hemoglobin, we don’t just use theirs. When we eat beef, we break down all the cow protein (including hemoglobin) and then build our hemoglobin from the bits.

There are some exceptions, it seems. As covered in a short news piece by Science, the article published in PNAS details the results of a trio of researchers who dosed themselves with pig-gland extract in order to show that a a sialic acid called Neu5Gc (made by pigs but not people) ends up in human tissue.

Since this molecule tends to attract the attention of the immune system, that’s probably a bad thing.

The Big Upshot for today is this: in biology (and in medicine) there are always exceptions.


The National Culture: News as Roman coliseum shows


I ran across an article that is pretty interesting. It’s a collection of speeches by Joe Bageant. He’s enamored with South American culture. That’s fine for him, but I don’t particularly identify with that culture. Too much touching. Joe may long for a “daily life in the flesh, belly to belly and soul to soul, lived out in the streets and parks and public places, in love and the workplace,” but that sounds like hell to me. God. The last thing I need is mutual public belly-touching.

However, his critique of American culture is well articulated:

Our daily news is the modern version of Roman coliseum shows. Elections are personality combat, chariot races, not examinations of solutions being offered. None are offered.

I happen to disagree with the implied solution he proposes (emulate the fuzzy tactile family structure of Belize), but I’m grateful that he actually goes so far as to offer up a solution to discuss. I have a different solution in mind. I think we could do a lot better if we spent more time and money on the work of craftsmen. I think it would be great if we were each others’ patrons when it came to individualized beautiful works of art and technology. The corporate, fad-oriented, marketed to death, planned obsolescence, throw-away culture is oppressive. But there’s no need to give up our comfortable “personal space.”

But my dream of a Neovictorian techno-utopia is far fetched. The blogosphere is my substitute for now, though. A place where people can engage intellectually with a little distance from the pervasive corporate interests… and there’s a great book on the subject over at Amazon.com on how to make money while blogging! Buy it through the link at right and support TBU!

(I’m only being half-ironic. Seriously, that button up top? You can buy that too! Know a designer who can spruce that up that design for me for a reasonable fee? Give me a yell.)


Heparin, analytical chemists to the rescue, and how bias could hurt open science

I was really impressed by the science that tracked down the problem with the contaminated heparin. It made me think of the enormity of coming up with good data in contentious issues like this. I have to wonder what this kind of issues a loaded question like “is this heparin contaminated?” would present for open science.

For people who are unfamiliar, heparin is a drug derived from meat animals that prevents blood coagulation. It’s really important for dialysis patients because in dialysis, blood is passed through a machine to remove the wastes that would usually go out as urine. The machine doesn’t like coagulated blood, an your body doesn’t want the coagulated blood back. So it’s important that it stay un-coagulated. Given that, heparin is pretty important. A bunch of people got sick taking heparin recently (66 died, sadly) and it was up to the analytical chemists to figure out why. It turned out that an impurity was causing the adverse reaction, but the impurity was so similar to the real heparin that it was being missed by the usual tests. In fact, thee have been some allegations that the impurity was deliberately introduced because it is cheaper, and in standard tests will show up as the legitimate compound.

heparin structure diagram from wikipedia
So, to get this figured out, the FDA did something clever. They gave a bunch of samples of the questionable heparin and the good heparin to some analytical chemists, but they didn’t tell the chemists which was which. Two groups of chemists looked for a contaminant and found the same thing independently. The fact that they both found the same impurity in the same sample is good evidence. But without knowing in the first place which sample caused health problems made the conclusion all the stronger.

But I would like to point out that this kind of science is hard. We’re looking at a lot of work, yes. But in this kind of business, it’s so murky and so easy to be biased that careful people need to blind themselves to the facts that might affect their interpretations. I’ve been reading a lot about open science recently, and I think it’s a marvelous idea: share data the way people share code so that the maximum good can come from whatever work people are doing. The problem with the idea is that whole “science is hard” thing. If people start sharing preliminary data, and they have biases and they share these biases, we could end up with open sciecne discrediting itself pretty fast. Unlike broken code that just doesn’t work, broken science can persist for a long time. It would be a shame to see something so promising become the home of charlatans and the self-delusional.