A science presenter, writer, speaker & former TV host; author of The Skeptic's Handbook (over 200,000 copies distributed & available in 15 languages).

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Nigeria declared free of Ebola, but do the maths

I am glad that Nigeria is officially free of Ebola now. The story is reassuring. New outbreaks of Ebola are stoppable. But the numbers are sobering. They show how far gone the situation is in West Africa.

The index patient (as the source of the outbreak is known) arrived in Lagos, a megacity of 21 million people, on July 20th — a recipe for disaster. Over the next six weeks 19 further people were diagnosed with Ebola. The death toll was eight people, many of them health workers. Those infected generated 989 contacts, and it took 18,500 in-person, follow up visits to make sure that the virus did not spread further.

Translate those ratios to West Africa, where the latest WHO situation report shows there were 2,638 new cases between September 26 and October 17. In Nigeria, each infected person on average generated 50 contacts, and each contact generated 18 follow-up visits. This is only the roughest of ballpark estimates, but if the ratios were similar, it means that solving the spread in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea would generate 130,000 contacts and require 2.4 million follow-ups in the next three weeks. By mid November that will double. Obviously things [...]

Company stops Ebola, Bureaucracy puts it on a plane

Compare the response of The Firestone Rubber Plantation in Liberia to the Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

The rubber plantation has 8,000 workers with 71,000 dependents. It  is an hour north-east of Monrovia, surrounded by Ebola outbreaks. The virus arrived on the plantation in March. Knowing that the UN and the Liberian government were not going to save them, the managers sat around a rubber tree and googled “Ebola” and learned on the run instead. They turned shipping containers into isolation units, trucks into ambulances, and chemical cleaning suits into “haz-mat” gear. They trained cleaners, and teachers, they blocked visitors, and over the next five months dealt with 71 infections, but by early October were clear of the virus. There were only 17 survivors (the same 70% mortality rate as elsewhere). But without good management, there could have been so many more deaths.

In contrast, the nanny-state takes a good brain and stops it thinking. In Texas,  trained health professionals were caught unprepared, following inadequate protocols they assumed were good enough, and even risking their own lives. A  nurse who cared for a dying Ebola patient — and knew how bad Ebola could be — still needed to phone someone to [...]

Ebola: a relentless tide we have to stop while we still can

The bad news -Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the disease was still out of control. Thanks to the mistake with a plane, a few US schools have closed, and whole neighborhoods are being roped off. How fast does a 19Kb string of information spread? Outside Africa, Norway has one case, Germany has had one death, one survivor, and one case. Spain has lost two, and is treating one. France and the UK have a survivor each. Today, at least, Senegal has been declared free of Ebola.

The WHO organization has admitted it botched the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

“In a draft internal document obtained by The Associated Press, the agency says “nearly everyone” involved in the response failed to notice the potential for Ebola’s explosive spread.

The agency acknowledged that its own bureaucracy was a problem, pointing out that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa.”

The good news – CSL have said they will develop a plasma product from survivor’s blood. At the moment this is the most pragmatic possible treatment. There are 3000+ survivors who have antibodies, which [...]

Ebola is potentially airborne

I’ve been watching Ebola with concern. I hoped we’d have more time. We can still gain control but every week matters. What we do now will be so much easier than what we have to do if we leave it to run.

The summary: The WHO warns that there may be 10,000 new cases a week in West Africa by early December. Can you imagine trying to set up new beds to cope with that each week? Meanwhile the Centre for Infectious Disease Research has advised the CDC that the evidence suggests some airborne spread of Ebola is occurring, which may explain the toll on health workers. Sadly a second health-worker has also been infected with Ebola in Texas (and she was on flight 1143 from Cleveland to Dallas the day before – the CDC wants passengers to call.).  Sixteen members of Doctors without Borders have been afflicted, and nine have died. That team deserves medals more help.

There are different versions of airborne infections, hopefully this is in the “only just airborne” category. Just being barely airborne is not the same as, say, being spread like measles. Nonetheless, the game has changed. Healthworkers need even more serious, much [...]

Very small trial appears to reverse Alzheimers symptoms

I like to keep an eye on research on keeping our brains intact (even if it’s not far past the leeches-and-arsenic stage). Here is a tiny trial showing a bit of promise. After years of testing drugs on Alzheimer plaques without much luck, as far as I can tell, this study had the radical idea of doing a bit of everything that had seemed to delay Alzheimers — like exercise, dumping the carbs, mini-fasts, fish oil, meditation and things like that. Unlike the drug trials, this one actually seemed to work and surprisingly for as many as 9 out of 10 patients (there were only ten patients, that’s not a ratio). It’s quite neat that it did work. It has lots of potential (though not much in the way of profits for big-pharma). However it was only six months long. It may not be slowing the plaques, but then if it restores functional memory, that’s  rather the point (though I worry those plaques are coming back later).

Nonetheless, if you like the idea of saving  your brain. Worth reading the list below, just so you know and pass it on to those with an interest. Anything that helps, especially when [...]

Ebola — time for action

I trained in microbiology so I’ve watched the Ebola situation unfold with quiet dread.  When my favourite lecturer was asked what was worst of the worst infectious epidemics he could imagine, he responded that the sum of all fears would be a cross between Ebola and Newcastle’s disease. It would be a highly fatal hemorrhagic disease, combined with a highly contagious virus spread by birds. It’s time to talk of the dark dark possibility that one mutation could bring — the aerosolization of Ebola.

As long as this Filovirus stays in its current form, spread only through direct contact with an infected and obviously ill person, we have a chance to limit the spread. Quarantine is effective. If it goes airborne, the task becomes like preventing the flu, but without clinically tested vaccines, in a totally unprotected population, and with a 60% fatality rate. This is the nuclear option.

The Ebola virus has several different forms, and at least in animal studies, it has “gone airborne” before. Theoretically, it’s an odds game. The more times the virus is copied — the better the odds are that the right mutation will occur. To be brutally blunt, every infected person is another [...]

Remarkable boost for immune systems after fasting

There’s a fascinating study out this week suggesting that if we fast for three or four days a couple of times a year we can regenerate white blood stem cells. Fasting cuts down the number of white blood cells during the fast, but afterwards they recover, and then some.

This new result comes from both mice and phase I clinical human trials.  Probably in paleolithic times, famine or at least hungry days were a part of nearly everyone’s life. Many different philosophies and religions have fasting traditions. Apparently our genes are selected to deal with that, and being short of food makes the immune system do a kind of efficiency sweep. Perhaps access to unnaturally continuous food stops our stem cells from reactivating?  Something to think about from Killjoy Jo. Yes, fasting is not exactly fun, but nor is cancer. For what it’s worth, the hard part of a fast is usually the start.

Obviously, consult your doc, do your own research, etc.

The NZ Herald

Fasting for three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly, scientists have found in a breakthrough described as remarkable.

University of Southern California

Fasting triggers stem cell regeneration [...]

Cutting calories can stop cancer cells from spreading

Something different to discuss – for the medical-revolution cynics among us. Cells from a human triple-negative breast cancer were implanted in mice under their mammary fat pads. Triple negative breast cancer is a nastier form of breast cancer which is harder to treat because these cells don’t respond to the usual anti-estrogenic drugs.

The mice were then allowed to eat only 70% as many calories as they would normally freely choose to eat.  This is a particularly interesting study because it shows that calorie restriction inhibited the expression of certain micro RNAs even from foreign (non mouse) implanted breast cancer cells, and this apparently kept the cancer from spreading. Notably fatalities from cancers don’t usually come from the initial solid tumor but from the metastasized version, so this is potentially very useful.

The mechanism involves strengthening the matrix around the cancer cells. When these cancer cells have metastasized they produce more of these particular micro RNA’s which in turn appear to stop production of proteins that strengthen the extracellular matrix. In other words, the cancer cells probably use the micro RNA’s to degrade the cellular matrix around them in order to spread. The implications of this are both that the [...]

A first: one patient’s widespread cancer treated with an engineered virus

Myeloma Cells | Wikimedia

This is another example of why I’m so passionate about getting research money out of dead-end efforts to change the weather and into medical research. The extraordinary news broke last week that the Mayo Clinic had used a genetically modified virus to cure treat one woman of metastasized and widely spread cancer – specifically myeloma. There are a lot of caveats, this research is quite risky, and it doesn’t apply to most people or most cancers, it is a proof of principle.

The potential for transformative medical breakthroughs is spectacular right now.  Medicine is, after all, just an information game. The information is expensive but the material resources are dirt cheap — all the answers to the holy grail of the fountain of health are found in rearrangements of common elements — like the kind found in the dirt of a pot-plant. For the first time humanity has the tools to hunt and hammer out the information. If people knew what glittering marvels were within reach, they surely would want to channel our best and brightest and all our spare resources.

The  main caveat here (a pretty big one) is that the trial had only [...]

Abbott takes Jo’s plan: dumps renewables, pumps medical research

Three years ago I made the case for dumping renewables, and doubling medical research — and both occurred in last night’s budget. (Yes, I hear the cry that this is just more big-government funded bad-science, bear with me, I’ll get to that). First let me bask in the glory (wink). 

I’m especially proud of the Op-Ed I wrote in The Weekend Australian in May 2011.  Indeed it’s very much my driving mission — to redirect corrupted and wasteful tax funds towards better uses, and to help four year olds with cancer, and all the other variants of human pain.

It’s big biccies… The Abbott Government is setting up a 20 billion dollar medical research future fund, which is expected to distribute $1 billion to research annually by 2022-23. It’s being claimed it is the largest in the world (I am not entirely convinced, but nonetheless, it’s radically big). We currently spend about $800m a year on medical research, so this would really double it. (Spooky).

But I can feel the barbs of skeptical libertarians already — saying the money should have been used to pay off the debt or returned to the people who earned it — and I’m sympathetic. [...]

There goes another consensus. Crash diets solve diabetes in 3 weeks

Sometimes the consensus deniers are right, which is exactly why the term is so pointless and so profoundly unscientific.

The medical associations were unequivocal. Crash diets were a fad, unhealthy, and only slow sensible weight loss could work. So millions of people were fed expensive drugs for decades, monitored, and some even given risky bariatric surgery. Patients with Type II diabetes were expected to be treated for years, or possibly the rest of their lives. Nearly a tenth of the national health budget of the UK was spent managing diabetes. Fully 8% of the population have the condition in the US.

Now a new (albeit very very small) study cured diabetes in some cases in as little as a week with a diet that was thought to be bad.

In the trial the very low calorie diet was done for 8 weeks. Sticking to 600 calories a day is not easy (some reports say it was 800 cals). It’s about a quarter of what a normal guy would eat. But it shrinks fat in the pancreas and liver, and that seemingly returns insulin levels to normal. The really amazing thing is that the benefits turn out to stay around far [...]

Human body parts made to order (Windpipes, and bionic ears made from 3D printers)

Australia could be leading the world in research that will save lives and earn money. Instead we lead the world in gullible obedience to an absurd scheme to change the weather.

Making human body parts from off-the-shelf or customized cells is a vast improvement on waiting for healthy people to die and donate, and a lifetime of immunosuppressants. Any delay in developing these techniques will surely cost lives and prolong disability. Those who do develop and patent these techniques are bound to profit and be able to afford even more research, and will improve national productivity as well as the quality of life. For those on waiting lists, spending $3billion on solar panels to stop storms and hold back the sea is the cruelest waste.

This type of medical work could make waiting lists for organ-donation a thing of the past. The political vanity of supporting useless causes for the sake of symbolism has a ghastly price.

Read about what this poor little girl and her family have had to go through. She is two, and had never been home or tasted food until last month. She has not been able to speak, but might possibly one day. This is [...]

The Stem Cell revolution: growing brain cells to repair damage

Voting closes on Tuesday. Look for “Jo Nova“. Click “next” until you get the chance to click Finish, or Submit. Thanks! Overseas votes welcome.

This week in stem cell news one research group announced they’d accidentally figured out a way to easily convert human bone-marrow stem cells into brain cells which could in future repair spinal or brain damage.  Another group showed that if you happen to be a particular type of old mouse with memory problems, researchers can give you a transplant of stem cells that restore your learning and memoryand help you swim through water mazes faster. But seriously, these discoveries could help a lot of very needy people.

Meanwhile Australia, celebrated it’s one millionth roofing panel that provide expensive, irregular electricity.

Ladies and Gentlemen — there is a revolution going on, and it’s not the Green one. How much could $2 billion wasted dollars have achieved if it were spent wisely?

These two studies fit together quite well — the first shows it’s possible to use stem cells to restore brain function, the second suggests it might be easier to get the right stem cells than anyone thought.

Repairing damaged mouse brains

How’s this for odd, [...]

Some good news science – growing spare parts for people

With all the corruption and failures in climate science, sometimes it’s nice to read about how some areas of science are still working, and developing something that matters.

There are thousands of people working on a frontier of science that promises to revolutionize medicine. We are living in the last days of what we’ll come to know as the “old medicine” where surgeons do the unthinkable — cutting out healthy blood vessels to get spare parts for more important sites, or treating people with drugs that affect cells all over the body (with many unwanted side-effects) when what we need is a way to get the right molecules into a tiny percentage of cells. Then there is the devastating cost of using transplants from other people (deceased or not), and then having to use immune-suppressant drugs for life. Growing your own spare parts — customized and make to order — is the brilliant alternative.

Our lives would be so much better if the money used to install vast inefficient solar arrays, or bird-breaking windfarms was used instead on gene therapy. That doesn’t mean everything about this is unquestionably good, like any powerful tool, gene therapy can kill as well as [...]