the one and only

Successful (early) step in gene therapy for HIV

This new pilot study used a cool gene therapy technique to confer resistance to HIV.    

Basically, a small fraction of humans have innate resistance to HIV.  Scientists have found the mutation in white blood cells that confers this.  They they extract the cells of patients, alter them, and re-introduce them.  The resultant cells resist HIV and are selected for.  (the mutation in CCR5 is very hard for HIV to mutate around - if I remember right from my school days, it’s one of the things HIV consistently relies upon).   

This study was meant to show safety, not efficacy, but there were signs it was working. 

So sad that gene therapy moves so slow, and does not get more money. But excited to see any progress! 

Placebo effect strong, even when you know about it

The Placebo effect continues to be amazing in its mystery and power.  This podcast from Science Friday covers a recent study where a migraine drug was employed to specifically test the placebo effect. 

Basically,  Migraine sufferers were given pills labeled as drug, placebo, or ambiguous.   Unusually, this study also featured a no-treatment group, which enabled better isolation of placebo. 

Impressive result #1:  The placebo effect was found to be as strong as the (well tested) drug itself. 

Impressive result #2:  The placebo effect scaled along with the degree of positive expectations conferred.

Impressive result #3: Knowing about the placebo didn’t remove the effect.  In fact, the biggest treatment effect delta was between no treatment and being given a pill labeled “placebo.”

That last one is particularly bizarre.  Studies like this just show that a) we need to study this more, and b) we need to be very careful how we message things in life.  Our mind does have great power over our matter. 

Turing’s theory of developmental biology validated, 60 years later

Yet more evidence that Alan Turing was one of the smartest, most impactful people ever.  

When he wasn’t pioneering computer science, artificial intelligence, or winning WWII, Turing also dabbled in basically inventing systems biology.

Turing attempted to model the mechanisms by which organisms could form structures during development.  Turing built models that would allow cells to form patterns like stripes or spots, using only local information, with now global direction.

For decades after, biologists didn’t take the theory seriously.  Now, 60 years later, evidence is mounting that Turing was right in many cases: his de-centralized model may be integral to how structures like our fingers are formed (albeit with interaction from other positional information that allows for more complexity and precision). 

Yet again, Alan, on behalf of humanity, let me say:

Thank you.  And we are sorry. 

Here are some sources to peruse: 

Podcast with a researcher in the field

Biologists hone in on Turing patterns

Hox Genes Regulate Digit Patterning by Controlling the Wavelength of a Turing-Type Mechanism

A Mechanochemical Model for Embryonic Pattern Formation: Coupling Tissue Mechanics and Morphogen Expression

Turing’s theory of developmental pattern formation (Video lecture)

Proper Etiquette when you have just croqueted someone*

*Someone being your father and future father-in-law

Proper Etiquette when you have just croqueted someone*

*Someone being your father and future father-in-law



Mushrooms can eat radiation - and protect those who eat them

Ok, learned something awesome on the TWIM podcast.   Many fungi are protected from radiation, and can even process it as a food source.   Eating the right mushroom might even protect you in the case of a radiation overdose. 

Here’s some more info, but the highlights: 

  •  Melanin (the stuff in human skin), has a property called “Compton Scattering” (This is different from what occurs in LA, LOL).   Basically, it scatters and dissipates radiation
  • Some mushrooms have a lot of Melanin, and can use the pigment (like chlorophyl) to harvest energy from the radiation.
  • In a 2012 experiment, researchers gave mice a lethal dose of radiation, and fed some of the mice a mushroom (often found in asian food).  All of the control mice died.  90% of the mushroom-eaters lived.  
  • FYI - check out the interior of Chernobyl - apparently it’s black with fungus.

Biology is the true alien technology… 

Tooth and Claw indeed. 

Tooth and Claw indeed. 

Can You Read People’s Emotions?

Fun quiz based on research* 

Try it here.  How well do you score?

*done by Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin!

Faillist: Embracing setbacks once => 3 years of success


Shankar Vedantam* covers some amazing research on NPR today.

The experiment tested the effectiveness of a one-time intervention on college freshmen, which craftily encouraged students to testify that:

  • Adversity is common
  • Adversity is transient
  • We all feel like outsiders sometimes
6 months ago - 1

Experience my favorite neural illusion ever:  The McGurk Effect.   I bet you can’t beat it…. 

You Are What You Poo

Take the poo from a lean human, and introduce it into an obese mouse.  The result?  The stuff living in the poo makes the mouse thin.  

I love science.

Evidence continues to build that the gut microbiota, bacteria living in our intestines & poop (which happen to be 90% of the cells in our body, and more than 99% of the genes), exerts a powerful effect on our bodies and minds.  

Here’s some great discussion on the TWiM podcast,  the paper and discussion in Science, and coverage in Scientific American.

What the likely mechanism?  Probably that a poor gut flora lacks certain bugs that protect us from invasion from bad bugs that screw up the ecosystem,  producing obesity as a side effect. 

Will we one day get a fecal transplant to keep us thin?  Not soon, but it’s not that crazy an idea…

Bad Logic, Great illustrations

A really cute little book illustrating the common logical mistakes.  Read the whole thing online!

Tomtato: Tomatoes and Potatoes in One

You say tomato,  I say Tomtato!  Scientists have figured out a way to create a plant that grows tomatoes (on the  top) an potatoes (in the roots).  Read more here.

Though we clearly need to be very careful with Agrobio,  I think history has shown that it will take a lot more technology if we want to meet the goal of, say, allowing all the humans alive today to eat as well as the person reading this.   The other option is a lot less humans…

Check out the history of the Green Revolution: (  

or the Haber Process: ( 

P.S.  On a side note, the personal history of Fritz Haber is incredibly interesting, impactful and tragic.   Listen to this great Radiolab podcast:

Rise of the Machines: Anesthesiologists are not safe

As outlined in this WSJ article, a newly approved system from J&J  could eliminate the need for Anesthesiologists for many procedures.   The system is called Sedasys, and could help reduce a major cost point in our massive healthcare spend.  Bringing Anesthesiologists into a procedure can costs thousands, while use of Sedasys would be more like $150.

On the one hand the benefits of such technology are amazing.  On the other, it’s scary to see such high-end professions encroached upon by machines.  What’s safe?  Not much if you take XKCD’s view.  

But the resolution here is the same as for the cashier or the buggy whip driver.  We need this technology, but we need to ensure that:

a)  Our economy is flexible enough to rapidly develop new industries that  will require human workers.

b) Our workers have the education, the infrastructure, the incentives and the entrepreneurial mindset needed to move with (or ahead of?) the market into new fields without calamity.

But will there always be new applications for humans?  Well not always…. but that would imply a situation where AI has truly supplanted us in all respects, and our technology can supply all our needs without us lifting a finger.    

Call me when that happens.   Sounds nice. 

Ah, biotech nerd humor at its finest

Ah, biotech nerd humor at its finest