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More about stem cells

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My stem cell articles for Bright Hub for March have been published. There are some articles about treatments. If you only read one, read the one about induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These show incredible promise as a controvery-free replacement for embryonic stem cells.

Stem cell research is moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. Already there are clinical trials that may actually heal spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately, they use embryonic stem cells. Amazingly, embryonic stem cells may not even be necessary for this treatment; adult stem cells have healed spinal cord injuries in rats, just like embryonic stem cells.


A scientific look at traffic and car culture

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I recently read the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt, a fascinating look at many aspects of car culture: how roads affect traffic patterns, how both safety and danger are often an illusions, how driving behavior varies around the world, and how traffic deaths are correlated not to GDP or highway spending, but to governmental corruption. This book examines a lot of psychological science and the intersection (hah) between psychology and engineering that goes into traffic management.

It turns out that traffic engineering is not rocket science. It's way more complicated than that.

For example, road capacity is directly related to the demand for road capacity. In other words, if traffic engineers put in a new lane or road to ease congestion on an existing road, they will be confounded by a number of new drivers on that road. Adding to capacity somehow adds to the number of drivers using it (and vice versa: when roads or lanes are removed, for instance by construction, demand falls). This peculiar phenomenon stems from the fact that drivers are independent beings who make choices based on what is available to them. If a road is too crowded, some will choose to make fewer trips (perhaps telecommuting or combining errands into one trip). If new capacity becomes available, some will choose to make more trips (perhaps not making the effort of combining errands into a single trip).

I have some questions for you, dear reader, and would love it if you shared your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. What are your traffic pet peeves? What driver behaviors and road conditions drive (hah) you crazy?
  2. Do you think you are an average driver, in terms of skill and safety? Below or above average? Why?
  3. What do you think of the use of the horn? Is it always rude? When is it not rude?
  4. And where do you do most of your driving? I'm wondering about geography, since traffic culture varies widely among locations. New York drivers are very different from London drivers or Salt Lake City drivers.


Sex, lies and embryos

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Mouse adult stem cell-derived immune system cell (dendritic cell)President Barack Obama is rescinding the U.S. ban on research on new lines of embryonic stem cells. The narrative that his administration is promoting is that this research is "pro-science," and that the Bush ban on such research was "anti-science" due to ignorance about the potential of stem cells. To strengthen the narrative, the propagandists seek intentionally to confuse the difference between the two major types of stem cells used in research.

Therapies using so-called "adult" stem cells, which can be obtained without significant harm to the donor, show great promise as potential treatments for diseases from heart disease to diabetes. Embryonic stem cells, which are obtained only after killing the human donor, have so far proven to be more problematic, as they have a tendency to form tumors called teratomas.

Julia Dory Ransohoff, a 17-year-old prodigy who has conducted her own stem cell research, has appeared in the news as a finalist for the Intel Science Talent Search. She was invited to meet the President as part of the pro-embryonic stem cell research propaganda effort.

But here's the "lie," which is actually an omission meant to confuse: Ms. Ransohoff's research is not on embryonic stem cells at all. She used adult stem cells from bone marrow. She found that heterologous stem cells to treat heart disease elicit a greater immune response for female donors than for male donors (that's the "sex").

The tactic used by supporters of embryonic stem cell research is to cloud the ethical questions surrounding it by failing to distinguish between embryonic and adult stem cells. There is no serious ethical opposition to the use of adult stem cells. Bioethicists from all sides of the debate agree on that point. Failing to make the distinction is dishonest and dishonorable.

Image: Mouse dendritic cells (a type of immune system cell) derived from bone marrow adult stem cells. Source: National Cancer Institute.

Update: After I published this post, I saw this headline: "Obama moves to separate politics and science." Just as I said, the Obama administration is trying to paint the issue as one of noble science v. extremist politics, rather than as an ethical debate.


Words nominated for banishment 2009

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Every year, Lake Superior State University compiles a list of words to be banished for "mis-use, over-use and general uselessness." As I like to fancy myself a writer, this blog has an annual tradition (of which this is the second installment; that's a respectable lifespan for a blog!) of nominating words and expressions for the next LSSU list. Here are my 2009 nominations:

Green collar. This one was actually banished this year by LSSU, along with every other construction using the word "green" that does not have to do with nausea or envy. I wanted to single this one out for being an especially egregious and useless expression.

Down economy. Unforgivably overused.

These tough economic times. This clich├ęd phrase usually shows up in platitudes that are themselves useless.

Pass Constitutional muster. This terribly overused expression returns over 66,000 results from Google. What is a muster, anyway?

Shock and awe. This oldie was appearing in stories broadcast on NPR as recently as last month. I'm shocked that it is still in wide use despite appearing on LSSU's list five years ago.

Signature — as in, "signature dish" (uttered frequently by the infamous Chef Gordon Ramsay as he abuses struggling chefs), "signature service" (marketed by a certain large oil-change franchise), and many other abuses.

Give back. The phrase "give back" requires an object; one gives back to someone. To describe charitable endeavors as "giving back" is vague, ungrammatical, and devoid of meaning. (Oh wait: this was on the 2008 LSSU list. Well, it bears repeating.)

My readers (hi Grandma!) are an erudite bunch, and I know you are thinking of some words you ardently wish to see banished. Nominate them in the comments below!


Should babies be made to order? Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis

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The Scientific American headline asks, "Can Babies Be Made to Order?" It is typical of SciAm, as well as of many members of the research community, that the more important question was overlooked: "Should Babies Be Made to Order?"

The article is an interview with Maria Lalioti, an expert in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In PGD, embryos are created in vitro and then screened for certain genetic traits, which may include traits incompatible with life or merely traits that increase risk for certain diseases.

The embryos that fail the screening are labelled "undesirable." I'm not making that up: Lalioti says the parents decide the fate of "undesirable embryos" whose genes are imperfect. They may be experimented on, or they may be killed. Lalioti's euphemisms, respectively, are "donated to science" and "discarded."

Let us be crystal clear about what PGD does and does not do. PGD does not save lives — it takes them. It kills young, tiny humans before a couple invests significant affection and financial resources on them. It kills them before they are cute enough to inspire sympathy.

PGD is a ghastly "solution" to preventing diseases with a genetic component. It's the solution of Adolf Hitler, who also took undesirable people and discarded them or donated them to science. At least his victims could look their killers in the eye.

The real kicker occurs near the end of the interview, in which Lalioti self-righteously announces that her clinic does not permit sex selection of interviews "for ethical reasons." She derisively adds that some clinics "are making a lot of money" doing just this.

As for the question "Can Babies Be Made to Order?" The answer, according to Lalioti, is probably not. We don't know enough about the genes that influence cosmetic traits like hair and eye color. After all, researching those genes does nothing to teach us how to save lives. PGD does not save lives, either; it takes them.

Correction: When first published, this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Lalioti's clinic "does permit sex selection." This was a typo; it was supposed to read "does not permit sex selection." The error has been corrected and I apologize for any misunderstanding.


Readings for the first Sunday of Lent: Noah, the Flood, and baptism

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During this season of Lent, my parish is using custom-printed booklets for "worship aids" (which we use instead of missalettes). The booklets contain all the hymns for each Sunday, as well as the first two readings. Each Sunday is prefaced by a little meditation written by Father Paul Turner, a priest in Missouri who has created a large body of writing for this purpose.

Some of Fr. Turner's "bulletin inserts" are quite though-provoking and provide good food for meditation. The blurb for this past Sunday is another story. With my mad Google skilz, I found it online, at the top of page 2 of this parish's bulletin (PDF link). The subject is the first reading for March 1, Genesis 9:8-15, the end of the story of Noah's nautical adventure, in which God makes a covenant not to flood the earth again. Fr. Turner's commentary includes this:

So, what did God give up? God gave up global floods. “There shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.” God gave up giving up on people.

As I read these words, the catechist in me cringed. God did not give up giving up on people — because God has never given up on people. Though the Genesis account may make it sound as if God was intent on destroying his creation, our understanding of God makes it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. Old Testament stories like this are included in Scripture because they teach us something about humankind's relationship with God. It was sin that destroyed the earth, and God who saved it (through Noah). The covenant not to flood the earth is a prefigurement of the final covenant, when God sent Christ to save the earth from the flood of our sins.

The second reading for last Sunday is taken from the first Epistle of Peter. I rather think St. Peter had much more astute thoughts on the Noah story. From the reading:

[Christ] also went to preach to the spirits in prison,
who had once been disobedient
while God patiently waited in the days of Noah
during the building of the ark,
in which a few persons, eight in all,
were saved through water.
This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. (1 Peter 3:19-21)

The catechist in me was struck with wonder at this interpretation, which seems so obvious, but which had escaped my notice until now: The Great Flood, which symbolically cleansed and "purified" the world, prefigured our water baptism, in which our souls are really cleansed and purified from all original and personal sin. God did not give something up; he gave something to us.