"Being right does matter - and the science tribe has a long track record of getting things right in the end. Modern society is built on things it got right" - Joel Achenbach

Friday, 3 April 2015

Lab meat and the force of public opinion

A few news articles have been recently commenting on breakthroughs in the production of "lab-grown meat" - muscular tissue grown artificially which could be consumed as a more sustainable alternative to animal husbandry.

It's a fantastic idea, as the evolution of life is essentially a constant state of compromise between needs, the bodily processes of animals and plants can sometimes be quite inefficient.
For example in cows the ratio of edible feed eaten to edible meat produced is about 9:1. This means that 1kg of beef steak requires approximately 9kg of food (be it grass or grain) to make it.
This, in terms of food production, is terribly inefficient and the feed could arguably be put to better use.

At least, that's one basis of arguments for a vegetarian or vegan diet, that a meat-free diet is more economical and sustainable.
The problem with this is, we're culturally and biologically adapted to eat meat. Australia is known for it's barbeques, and a number of nutrients found in animal sources (protein, iron, etc) are absorbed far better (more bioavailable) than their counterparts in plant sources.

The problem is, when it comes to culture food is a rather sore-spot, we're used to eating certain things and we don't like that to change.
Besides, we like eating meat. Surely if we could find a better way of making it we could continue to reap the delicious, tender rewards without compromising our sustainability?
Well, that's the idea behind lab-grown meat. Even before the recent breakthroughs which have gained some public attention, it was being hailed as a game-changer by environmentalists, nutritionists and food industries.

There's one problem which requires careful consideration: we've been here before and it went terribly.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the centre of a great deal of heated debate. On the one hand, it is promoted as a life-saving, environmentally necessary technology which affords us greater control over the efficiency of our food production.
On the other hand, it's being regarded with fear and suspicion - how can you just add genes to a plant and expect the result to be safe for consumption?
This innate fear of technology in food is nothing new, it's a very old reaction and our survival is no doubt attributable to it.

This instinctive reaction is called food neophobia - the fear of eating new or unfamiliar foods.

In the past, we didn't have the safety of consumer protection laws or a reliable medical system to save us if we ate some poisonous berries. In order to account for this, a behavioural trait developed over time in which our ancestors were, by default, suspicious of foods they had not eaten before or seen somebody else eat safely.
This is why kids won't eat foods that aren't familiar, and also why a common tactic of dealing with such a scenario is to eat the food in front of them and expose them to it regularly and consistently.

While in the modern world we have safeguards which assure that in all but the rarest of circumstance that our food will be safe to eat, and that we have a good chance of surviving even if it isn't, this evolutionary and utterly necessary mechanism remains imprinted upon each and every one of us.

When GMOs were first being presented as a technology, a very crucial mistake was made with regards to their introduction to the public.
As the technology was being pioneered by private companies, the first thought of the company was to help themselves. There is nothing wrong with this, it isn't selfish to preserve your own business and opt not to give ground-breaking technology to the world free of charge.
It would undoubtedly be a very noble and altruistic thing to do, but not doing so is not necessarily a evil or immoral.
Thus, the first plants to be modified were made resistant to herbicides and pesticides. This enabled farmers to lose fewer crops to a coating of herbicide which resulted in more food for everyone and happier farmers.

The problem was that this had set the bar. The grand new food technology was unveiled and its first use was to supposedly line the pockets of the industry who created it.
Why, many people asked themselves, should we embrace this technology which offers us nothing? Especially when it's new, unfamiliar, and uses scary-sounding words. What the hell even is "genetic modification" and how do you know it's safe?!

Several decades down the track and I don't need to even explain to you the situation as it stands.

My point is, lab-grown meat currently exists in that crucial, once-only stage of its inception. The public is only just finding out about it, and all it's capable of.
Action needs to be taken right now to address the fears and concerns of the public.

To that end, the company who develops this technology to the point that it becomes viable needs to take one for the team - they need to make this technology a boon to the public and not to themselves if they ever want it to be accepted widely.
That doesn't mean giving it away for free, but it does mean temporarily shelving any ambitions they have of making top dollar as quickly possible, and turning this technology into a gift to the public.
Not as a Trojan horse, but as a peace offering with a crucial message; food science is not a bogeyman.

Off the top of my head, perhaps a muscle tissue which is artificially low in certain proteins, which would permit individuals with genetic protein metabolism disorders to eat the foods they've never been able to eat safely before.
I can already think of a few problems with that suggestion, but that's something for the researchers. For those of you reading, I propose one simple action which can be undertaken to help acceptance of this new and very strange technology:

Don't call it lab-grown meat.

First impressions really are everything, the phrase "lab-grown meat" doesn't sit well on the tongue and incites those nasty feelings of ickiness which characterise food neophobia.
I'm not sure which term would be universally agreeable, but the point is to call it something which doesn't immediately bring to mind images of test-tubes, syringes and an evil man in a lab-coat.

Personally, I'm going to adopt the name "cultured meat", as it suits my criteria, sounds pleasant, and is not deceptive as to the nature of the meat or the process which creates the meat.

I invite any readers to consider their own, or even adopt my own suggestion, and to tell everybody about this fantastic new technology which could solve some of the crucial sustainability issues of the food system.
Just don't call it lab-grown meat.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 3

Where am I going with this, you might ask?

The point of all of the information thus far is to bring across the point that cancer is not a foreign pathogen which has invaded the body, it is your own cells. Even with all of the mutations which separate it from its siblings, any cancer will be almost identical to its siblings in terms of the genetic makeup of the cell.

Since the mechanism which normally prevents this sort of thing is contained within each individual cell, and each cell can only use this mechanism on itself, there is no way for the body to destroy a cancer cell from the outside.

This is why cancer is such a terrible disease, and why we haven't found a definitive, 100% effective cure yet. We aren't trying to kill a foreign pathogen, we're trying to find a way to kill you, but only the parts of you which are cancerous, which are almost identical to the rest of you.

Many claims made by alternative health 'practitioners', and specifically the diet-related ones, are that the source of cancers are dietary or environmental and therefore the cure is dietary; this does not follow from reality.
While it's true that mutations can be brought on by exposure to things which specifically mutate DNA (radiation, alcohol, chemicals both naturally occurring and manufactured), once you've received that initial mutation to the self-repairing mechanism that cell is essentially a ticking time bomb.

Treatment not only needs to selectively target these cells over non-cancerous cells, but it needs to do so reliably and thoroughly otherwise the cancer will simply reform.
Excision (cutting the tumour out), radiotherapy and chemotherapy are currently some of our best means of treating tumours.

The reason that these are the only effective means is that, although we can easily kill cancerous cells within laboratory conditions, it is far more difficult to selectively kill the certain cancerous cells within a patient's body which are surrounded by millions of near-identical, non-cancerous cells.
These treatments are effective is because they ignore the DNA and instead target the way cancerous cells act which distinguish them from normal cells (e.g. rapid replication). I could devote several pages to describing how each of these treatments work and I may do so one day, but the point to realise is that any successful treatment for cancer must fulfil these specific criteria.

How then, do alternative treatments work? How could the exclusion of mutation-causing chemicals in your body, or a change in your daily routine fix pre-existing mutations which your own body or even modern medicine can't fix? Failing that, how can these techniques induce cell suicide in ONLY the cancerous cells?
The simple answer is that there is no evidence at all to suggest that they can and no reliably documented case that they ever have, yet proponents always assure the consumer that their treatment is effective.

These 'alternative' treatments are not effective, and people have died chasing this false dream sold to them by a salesperson.

Once you have a cancer, any attempt at fixing your diet or lifestyle is doing nothing but limiting mutations from occurring, it won't make the cancer go away.
This is the awful truth of cancer, and I don't relish the idea of breaking it to anybody who either has or may in the future have cancer (1 in 3, remember?).

All I have left to say is simply that there is hope, your surgeons and doctors can help you and will do everything in their power to cure your disease, but you must trust them and be wary that you will encounter people who will attempt to lure you in with false hopes and promises of a cure.

These people cannot cure you, they barely understand the disease they're talking about.

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 2

Two fundamental principles of evolution are random mutation and natural selection. An animal mutates in a way which gives it a slight advantage (bigger wings, etc) and if the environment favours an animal with this advantage, it is more likely to survive and have offspring which also have that advantage.
This, in a nutshell, is a perfect metaphor for cancer.

Your body is made of cells, and each cell contains a complete copy of your DNA. Genes are sections of your DNA which, when read by the cell, provide a set of instructions with which to make structures called 'proteins'. Proteins designed to do different things carry out all the functions of the cell, from making chemical reactions happen (enzymes), forming the wall of the cell (lipoproteins), to reproducing or committing suicide.
Remember those last two, we'll come back to them later.

The cells of your body replicate constantly at varying rates in order to keep up with how often those cells need replacing (red blood cells replicate slower than skin cells). Remember what we talked about with evolution, how mutations in a parent can be passed on to their offspring? That applies to every cell in your body. Mutations in DNA which occur in a cell are passed on to any cells made by that cell as it divides.

Every cell in your body can be thought of (for the purposes of this example, this isn't a literal definition) as a miniature animal. The only difference is that rather than each one competing with each other for survival, they all cooperate. Each individual cell might be able to get bigger and fatter on their own, but their cooperation means that they can live as an entire organism (an animal comprised of cells) and have a much better chance of long-term survival.

In order to facilitate this, they have all developed a way to stave off evolution because they don't want to gain an advantage over each other. When cells divide, there is ordinarily a mechanism in place by which the cell checks its DNA to make sure it hasn't received any mutations which give it an edge or disadvantage over its siblings. If it has mutated, the cell will attempt to fix the mutation before replicating. If the cell can't fix the mutation, it will commit suicide for the greater good of its siblings and the organism they make up.

It's a good system which usually works very well, 2 out of 3 people will go their entire lives never contracting cancer.
There is, however, one fundamental flaw:
 genes, made of DNA, are what provide the instructions for the mechanism by which cells look for and repair DNA.
Since genes themselves can mutate, the mechanism which fixes mutations can itself mutate. When this happens you get a cell which can't correctly fix mutations.
Now that it can't properly check itself for mutations, if the cell receives any further mutations which do give it an edge over its siblings, it can't fix them or commit suicide for the greater good.
Eventually, mutations occur which cause this cell to do things it normally wouldn't do. It starts replicating faster than it normally would, it starts growing bigger than it normally would, it might start invading areas it wouldn't normally go.

Sound familiar? It should, because at this point you have a cancer.

Why diet and lifestyle won't cure your cancer, part 1

I'm a cancer survivor.
I don't like playing that card, and I'm getting it out of the way quickly. The reason I find it necessary to mention at all is to illustrate a point: I get it.
I didn't go through radiotherapy or chemotherapy, as far as cancers go mine was quite tame and was fully removed by a partial colectomy (removal of part of my large intestine). I may not understand what it's like to endure a more severe cancer, but I do understand one thing:
I understand what it's like to receive a diagnosis which potentially means the end of your life. I know what it feels like to have an appendix forcibly added to every one of your future dreams and aspirations which reads:
*If I survive the cancer
This is a terrible thing to happen and many, in their desperation, turn to anything and everything which could possibly give them an edge against their disease.
A woman died recently because her cancer was not like mine, hers was very bad. Traditional radiotherapy and chemotherapy failed and the only remaining solution was a disfiguring and disabling amputation. In disgust of this procedure, the woman turned desperately to a therapy which revolved around dietary and lifestyle changes for a cure; something which ultimately led to her death.
I will say no more on her case, and I encourage any readers to hold comments; there is no use ridiculing her situation or decisions now.

This and the next two subsequent posts are not an attack on people like this woman, nor are they an attack on the procedures and those who claim their effectiveness.
This is simply a description of exactly what it is they're trying to treat and why the proposed 'cures' can't possibly work.