Thursday, July 20, 2006

Much Ado about the Veto

The big news today was about President Bush vetoing the bill that would have expanded federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. This was of interest to me since I work in the field of biological research, and also because I happen to be at an institute that is the leader in stem cell research, UW-Madison. Dr. James Thomson, director of WiCell was the first in the world to isolate stem cells in 1998 and lay the foundation for further research in this area that aims to find cures for diseases like Diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Stem cells retain the ability to shape themselves into different organs depending on the stimuli given, and may be able to replace the dead brain cells, the destroyed pancreas or the failed kidney. The WiCell Research Institute at Madison was selected late last year by the National Institutes of Health to establish the federal government’s first National Stem Cell Bank that includes a support of $16 million over the next 4 years.

The stem cell research that is opposed by Bush and his right-conservative faction is that involving embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cell research is not part of the cut-down and although it lacks the plasticity of embryonic cells, there have been successful applications. Embryonic stem cells are derived from human eggs that are fertilized in-vitro, and not the eggs fertilized inside a woman's body. These eggs are donated by women voluntarily, and these are eggs that would have gone to waste anyways. Bush equates cells of the fertilized embryo to living human cells, and to what extent that is true is a matter of your belief and opinion as to when life actually starts. It is an extension to the abortion row that continues to divide the citizens and voters of this country.

US scientists are wary of losing opportunities of stem cell discovery to Asian countries like China, Japan and South Korea which have more permissive policies for such research. However, by far, US funds more stem cell research and has more stem cell lines than all other countries put together. For instance, total US funding is in excess of 200 million as compared to South Korea that comes a distant second with $60 million. Moreover, I read that whereas the NIH funds only around $24 million, private agencies fund more than $200 million. The veto does not affect this private funding a wee bit.

Critics of embryonic stem cell research say that not much has come off from the past years of research. There have been reports of disastrous consequences of stem cell transplants where cells grew into a brain tumor that killed the patient. Proponents might tell you a heart-wrenching story of a loved one that succumbed to a disease that lacked a cure. Undoubtedly, developing cures for these diseases need decades of labor-intensive research, and stem cell research is yet only in its infancy. A lot is expected of it and a lot is foreseen. Statistics can tell you about the burden of those diseases on federal spending through Medicaid and Medicare. By aiming to find cures, not only are we progressing in science and technology but also saving millions of dollars of future expenditure on rehab and palliative care. I doubt there is one straight-forward answer to it all, but debate and discussion can help people understand the other's point of view.

Let me end with a funny line by Conan O'Brien on the Late Night Show tonight. You needn't be an expert on American politics to figure out 'Who would be the biggest enemy of Bush? Two gay (illegal) immigrants doing stem cell research!'

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fahrenheit 451

This book by Ray Bradbury is about a dystopian world imagined by the author at a time when reading books and intellectual, individualistic thinking are discouraged, and homes with books burnt by 'firemen'. I put down some striking lines I came across. Some with deep meaning, some ironic and some real weird.
'Those who don't build must burn.'

'The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones runs a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.'

'When I was younger, I shoved my ignorance in people's faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.'

'The folly of mistaking a metaphor for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself as an oracle, is inborn in us.'

'And on the either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.'

Friday, July 14, 2006

WMD (Weapons of Mc Donaldization)

Over 99 billion served worldwide. Or so says the giant hoarding at a neighborhood McDonald’s fast-food restaurant. What I’d like to hear though is how many they have killed. No, really, I am serious. May be I am being unduly harsh on McDonald specifically, but we can include all its kind and its competitors in the statement. One of my co-worker’s husband had a heart attack recently at the age of 26. Boy, was that shocking or what! No prizes for guessing what his diet was like; burgers, French fries and coke, day after day, every single day. And he is not alone in leading this lifestyle. Have you noticed how every customer at McD’s is asked: ‘Would you like some fries? Anything to drink?’ Even if someone was intending only to satiate his transitory hunger, he would be cajoled into buying these ‘necessities’. Good for the marketing mind, not so good for the over-burdened heart!
Together, they have revolutionized the eating habits of the western world, and sedulous efforts are on to raise the ‘Mac index’ of the eastern world too. We know how ‘hip’ it is to visit a McD’s in India. It is considered a form of ‘American culture’ that many are willing to adopt blindly. The irony is that the western world is gradually waking to the benefits of vegetarianism and healthy food, while India, for instance, is fast falling in the same trap that will ruin whole generations and take much time to recover from. But that might not quite happen. Whereas here in the US, it is the minorities and the relatively poor that are targeted with prices of food as low as a couple of dollars; in India, it is still the stage for the relatively affluent classes. Obesity is an alarming epidemic in the US, with 65% adults being over-weight, 30% being obese and 5% being morbidly obese. If you are curious to know where you stand, you might consider calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index). Divide your weight (in kg) by the square of your height (in meters). Under 25 is normal; 25-30 is overweight, 30-40 is obesity and over 40 is morbid obesity.
I cherish the fact that I am a vegetarian. Though that was meant to be for religious reasons, it is reassuring to hear the health and goodness of being so. It is associated with lower cholesterol (animal fat has more saturated fatty acids, except fish oil), heart disease, hypertension, diabetes. I recently read that such a diet can also help insomniacs in regularizing their sleep patterns. Including lettuce and broccoli in your diet is not all that bad, is it?
But here’s something striking to ruminate about: Indian doctors recently met at a conference to discuss the exceedingly high prevalence of hyperhomocysteinemia (high levels of homocysteine) in vegetarian Indians, and a cause of early onset coronary heart disease and stroke. This results from a deficiency of folic acid, B6 and B12 vitamins found in greens, milk and eggs that are excluded from a vegan diet.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Can you digest these?

I have read all its biology and I have read the mechanisms. Yet, I was baffled. Reading the BBC Health capsules recently, I was rather shocked at the hard facts about the HIV-AIDS pandemic that our world is facing during the last decade or so. Even as they say that the AIDS’ spread has begun to peak, the magnitude of the problem is far too over the board. Although in terms of percentage, India, UK and USA all have around 1% of the population infected with HIV (many notches below an alarming 18.8% in South Africa, which means that 1 in 5 in South Africa is infected!), India houses the most HIV-infected persons in the world, accounting for 2/3rds of the cases in Asia. In absolute values, that’s about 5.7 million cases (according to a UN report). Regionally, southern India is worst affected, with 50% of the prostitutes in Tamil Nadu being infected with the retrovirus.
Another aspect of this horror story is that India also lags behind in meting out treatment to the HIV-infected. Whereas China that has almost the same number of infections is able to provide anti-retroviral therapy to 25% of its cases, India stands at a poor 7%, much below than even the Asian average of 16%. However, things are probably beginning to look up. With the biotechnology boom in India and a lot of international drug companies willing to set up base and invest in R&D and production of generic drugs, we might hope to provide the majority of our sick with cheaper yet effective drugs.
India spends 29 cents per capita on AIDS prevention and treatment, which is below the amount necessary to mount an effective resistance to the epidemic. For instance, Thailand that spent 55 cents per capita has been able to control the disease to a great extent that once threatened to trounce it completely. In terms of the enormous population, India still has a huge deficit of funds towards this cause. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $200 million to the ‘Avahan’ project to deal with AIDS awareness. This is only part of the philanthropic efforts of the US software giant towards health issues that include development of vaccines and drugs for Malaria and TB (which are the other two of the ‘trinity’ of health problems of the developing world, in which too, India is the leader). Amongst all this, it pains me to hear about a 15-year old in Gujarat who immolated himself because he could not bear the ostracism faced due to having HIV-infected parents. I get reminded of the subtle message Shabana Azmi publicized many years ago in a TV ad: ‘HIV choone se nahi phelta hai, isse to sirf pyar phelta hai’.