Make sure you have your cancer in Sweden

Hearing the news this morning it would appear that, if you live in Sweden and develop lung cancer, you’ll live forever. The BBC website says: “A study by a team at King’s College London, and published in Thorax, finds that despite similar health spending, Swedes have almost double the survival rate after five years with the disease.” I can hear the political jibes now – “isn’t the NHS dreadful?”, “why can’t we do as well as Sweden?” and so on.

If you have a look at the King’s College website and check their publicity it points out that, five years after diagnosis, 6.5% of British men are still alive, whereas the figure in Sweden is 11.3% . Hence the “twice as many Swedes survive” headline. Nearly 90% of the Swedes don’t. It’s a terrible disease, and is not easily curable in Sweden, or anywhere else.

The leader of the study, Professor Holmberg, is quoted on the King’s website: “The data shows that patients in England are less likely to be actively treated with surgery and drugs than their Scandinavian counterparts. This may be because symptom awareness is poor in England, and patients delay seeking medical help, so that by the time they do, their disease is already advanced and beyond curative treatment.”

He goes on: “the number of diagnoses and deaths from lung cancer in England has plummeted since the 1970s, and that the prevalence of smoking – a key risk factor for lung cancer – is higher in the UK than it is in either Norway or Sweden.”

And then: “’However, we cannot exclude that differences in treatment activity – related or not to other co-existing illnesses, play a role.” Which is where the story comes from.

Truly it has been said, science journalism in Britain is very good, until it gets onto the front page, when it becomes appalling. Lung cancer is caused primarily by smoking, and countries with more smokers have more cases. I hope that’s what I would say if interviewed on the Today Programme.

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A 60s icon looks at 21st Century students

Here’s a thought from the world of comic books. A character called “Brother Power, The Geek” is a shop manikin brought to life and imbued with the spirit of the 1960s (just go with me on this). In The Brave and The Bold #29 The Geek comments on the difference between university campuses in the late 1960s and now. You can see the panels above.

Don’t you think The Geek has a point?

I can’t understand the importance given to mobiles by some of our student body. Whatever happened to just talking to people? But there is hope; The Geek finds that within everyone there is a (buried) ability to feel empathy with other people, and a desire to help the wider community. Even arch-cynic The Batman muses that he finds that “strangely comforting”.

If you’re passing by Forbidden Planet in Cardiff why not pop in and get a copy? You’ll be glad you did.

The Geek

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Autumnwatch at Glamorgan

We were very lucky to be able to hide and take this picture of a group of wheelbarrows mating. These creatures are usually very shy about interacting, and to see so many in one place is a high spot of the naturalists year. They are a remarkable example of a wild creature using humans to disperse their young.

Before long the females (which can only be recognised by their higher tyre pressure) will lay eggs, which to an untrained eye look remarkably like paper-clips. These will catch on the clothing of passers-by, and some willl find their way into the Taff where they will begin to grow, forming coathangeroid larvae.

As the larval stages grow they develop vestigial wheels, and can often be seen frolicking in the Taff on Friday nights. Naturalists call these trollyofshopping juveniles. These mature into wheelbarrows and crawl with their one mature wheel into hardware shop environmnets.

Next time you see one of these just marvel at the complexity of the natural world.

Autumn watch at Glamorgan

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Is it just me, or is the pelican crossing outside the university wonky?

As I walk into the university from Trefforest each day I have to cross busy roads via pelican crossings. The two in Trefforest work well enough, you push the button, and after a few seconds the traffic light goes red, and you can cross. Then you get up to the one by the Glyntaff campus.

Not especially pedestrian-friendly; this morning I saw four cars go round the mini-roundabout – none of them indicated where they were going, and one went the wrong way round the roundabout. But I digress.

The pelican crossing at Glyntaff looks the same as the others, but it seems to me that you push the button, wait for all the traffic to go past, and then the traffic light turns red.

Has anyone else noticed this, or it just me?

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Live long and prosper with rapamycin

Live forever, eh? The latest “magic” drug is isolated from Easter Island, don’t’y’know. Must be the statues or something. The BBC reports that the drug rapamycin extends the expected lifespan of mice by up to 38%. [It is interesting to speculate what “up to” means in this context.] This drug has been given to a lot of people for a variety of conditions, so it should be readily apparent if it prolongs life.

However, my point for consideration is the graph above (hope you don’t mind New Scientist, but I scanned it from an old copy). Human beings live a lot longer than other animals of comparable size. In fact a LOT longer. Some changes which can be made to increase lifespan have obviously occurred to us already some extent, and to extrapolate from another species to us may be misleading. In effect the drug-affected mice may be becoming a bit like we are, rather than the other way around. You can see from the graph that rodents don’t seem to have a stellar life expectancy to start with.

It could make extending human life a very complex aim – we’ve already exploited the capacity for longevity which can be induced in some animals in some circumstances. The real mystery is why we live so long already.

The change in average lifespan seen among humans in comparitively recent times is explained by a fall in premature death. In fact if every death before the age of 50 was eliminated, life expectancy would rise by all of 3½ years. Quite a thought?
Life Span Graph

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SAS Libal

Somehow I just know I’ll get some criticism for this post, but it’s not, as they say, about me. The journalist Simon Singh wrote a piece in The Guardian on 19 April 2008 which was critical of Chiropractic treatment. He was subsequently sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. The Guardian was not sued, or the other media outlets which have supported his position. There are concerns that this action is being taken to silence an individual. I’ll confess to sharing those concerns.

The organisation Sense About Science has started an on-line petition in support of Mr Singh. You can vote in favour of the proposition:“The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic through an open discussion in the medical literature or mainstream media.”

You can read about this and sign the petition at the Sense About Science website

This case could have a profound effect on scientific freedom, with the courts being used to silence individuals. Presumably it will work the other way too – alternative practitioners who slag off GPs (and I’ve heard a few) may find themselves sued for libel. The MP Evan Harris has written in the British Medical Journal (3rd June – article here) on this point:

“It is hard to imagine the British Medical Association, even at its most reactionary, bringing libel proceedings against a commentator for depreciating the good name of doctors in its columns. If it did, neither the British Medical Association nor the Daily Mail would ever be out of the courts.”

Please, if you support good science journalism sign the petition.

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Star Trekin’

Exams, graduation, marking? Take your mind off things and dodge the rain by going off to see the new Star Trek film. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to reboot this franchise in a way which would satisfy fans like me who’ve followed Star Trek since the 1960s. We tend to obsess about continuity faliures and inconsistancies in the stories.

Does it matter? – YES IT DOES! fanboys (obsessive nit-pickers) wear the term with pride, and we nit-pick because we care. It’s wonderful to see that someone has put some thought into this Star Trek for the 21st Century.

So….it’s a great science fiction thriller, cracking to look at, and is hugely entertaining for a new audience. It also gives the chance to get reaquainted with characters some of us know and love. It’s even got Captain Pike – the captain from the original pilot episode. Get down to the cinema, you won’t regret it. Live long and prosper, set your phasers on stun and full ahead Mr. Sulu, warp factor eight!

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Don’t lose the will to vote.

Some weekend thoughts about voting in the forthcoming Euroelection. MAKE SURE YOU REGISTER!!! It’s more important now than ever. If you don’t want to vote for any of them go along and spoil your paper. The European Union is there to make sure that there aren’t any more wars in Europe, so take it seriously.

People who get into trouble over expenses seem to have frequently lost sight of the difference between their salary and other allowances, so they get to the stage where they think (for instance) that their mileage allowance is a legitimate part of their salary. This can lead to employees driving about for no reason just to pick up the allowance. Those who do this would no doubt be most affronted to be accused of stealing.

I’m sure there are many examples of this type of thing. I suppose that although you can’t say where the line is, you can say when someone has crossed it. It may be that some politicians have crossed that that line, but I’m certainly not going to throw the first stone.

I’ve run this past some colleagues – some robust opinions have been expressed – but everyone agrees the way to sort this out is through the ballot box. Make sure you vote.

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Evolutionary Pedantic Point to Ponder

Here’s a pedantic point to ponder over the holiday weekend.

An item on the BBC News Science pages today describes some new research on human evolution, and the genetic variation in African populations, and it makes the following claim about the indigenous San communities in south-western Africa:

“It’s not surprising but it’s a very neat finding because the San have already been shown to have the oldest genetic lineages, suggesting they may be descendents of a population ancestral to all modern humans.”

The pedantic point is: Aren’t we all descendents of a population ancestral to all modern humans?

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Jimmy Carter off the hook for Swine Flu

Here’s a comment to savour. Just when you thought you had heard all the extrapolated hypothetical speculation (arghh!! the sky is falling!) and the informed journalism (antiviral drugs are NOT vaccines; take the trouble to ask what the difference is) here’s Minnesota Republican Representative Michele Bachmann:

“I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

You can see the clip at the huffingtonpost

As the commentator notes: Republican President Gerald Ford, not Carter, led the country during the last outbreak of the virus.

Apparently there is a rash of commentators blaming immigrants for the epidemic (hence, presumably, the association with liberal policies), so we can expect letters in the local press blaming students for any problems in South Wales.

If I spot such a letter I’ll put it up here, let’s see how long it takes…..

P.S. Thanks to the excellent Doonesbury site for bringing this to my attention

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