Archive for September, 2008

The author steps forward

I’ve decided to identify myself, as well as disclose where I work.

Since I took a university job about a year ago, I’ve wanted to try writing independently as a freelance journalist. My goals: see if it’s compatible with my job (which I enjoy), explore interesting areas of science and keep in touch with issues I used to cover at the North County Times.

Many freelance journalists have blogs and use them to develop and support their work. For people with a day job, I’ve seen several approaches to the question of: do you identify yourself and your employer?

A. Be open and hope for the best. No secrets. Many of the folks on Science Blogs (good example) take this approach.

B. Identify employer but leave name off blog, like this.

C. Identify self but not employer, although the employer is not a total secret. This seems to work for Derek Lowe, whose Pipeline blog I’ve enjoyed for years.

D. Don’t identify self or employer. If your blog is full of frustration and indignation over life as a postdoc, this might be a good idea.  But it means scrubbing your comments of anything that could give away who you are.

A certain prosecutor/press critic might also fall into category D, although people seem to know who he is (and that blog appears to have evolved into a joint endeavor).

I’d love to hear how other life sciences-oriented bloggers with day jobs handle this issue.

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Not junk DNA, Zimmer says

Book author and Discover blogger Carl Zimmer criticizes those who wrote about a recent Science paper, saying essentially: “Enhancers aren’t junk DNA, and nobody who knows what enhancers are ever thought so.”

They took their cue from the headline of the press release. Oops.

An enhancer is essentially a control button on the DNA determining when a certain gene gets turned on or not. Most of the time, scientists find enhancers somewhere near their favorite gene, while trying to figure out what pieces of DNA can account for where and when it gets turned on.

Junk is a word that more accurately describes a pseudogene (it looks like a gene, but it doesn’t work anymore) or a repeating element (debris from a kind of internal virus), not an enhancer.

In this recent case, it seems they found the enhancer first, without knowing what gene it controls. More precisely, they found it by computer, comparing human and monkey DNA to find sequences that were highly conserved in vertebrates but had rapidly evolved in the transition from monkey to human.

This particular piece DNA makes embryos turn blue in interesting places. Evo-devo coolness.

Whoever wrote the press release (at Yale, even) called the enhancer junk, and the scientists who did the work let it go by. Perhaps they figured that something inexact was OK if it got some attention. Or maybe they thought people would understand “once thought of as junk DNA” as meaning decades ago rather than months ago.

Having people misunderstand something in a way you didn’t anticipate is a typical problem faced by a science writer!

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Nanotech easier as cosmetics than drugs

Rick Weiss, who used to work at the Washington Post, has been doing some impressive work for Science Progress, a site run by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

He’s been reporting on a series of meetings the FDA has been holding, and along the way, pointing out the challenges in regulating or even defining nanotechnology. One major point is that nanotech in cosmetics or clothing faces less regulation than if it’s sold as a drug.

The folks I know who work with nanotech want to diagnose and treat cancer with it, so they’ll have to endure the acid test of a clinical trial. Notably, the “nanoshell” technology developed by Halas and West at Rice appears to be entering its first clinical trials.

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More mutations

It appears that simply cataloguing mutations in cancer cells doesn’t reveal how they drive growth + metastasis. There are too many to make sense of:

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Stem cells = gene therapy?

A Stanford bioethicist compares the possible hazards of stem cells with the challenges gene therapy faced a decade ago.

I don’t feel I have enough experience with university IRBs to judge whether stem cells need more regulatory oversight. Before reading this, I didn’t realize the FDA had placed a hold on the first clinical trial using a ES-cell-derived product. I aim to pay closer attention to this issue.

The clinical trial in question would deal with spinal cord injury. It appears that experts in cardiac muscle repair also disagree over whether enough is known about how stem cells work in that arena.

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Ag Biotech in China

Richard Stone lays out big plans for research on genetically modified plants in China. It makes me want to compare dollar figures with the US and evaluate how much the European attitude towards ag biotech has softened in the last few years.

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Expensive toys

A LA Times article exploring the familiar idea that CT scans are profitable for some doctors but zap patients with too many X-rays to be worth the nice pictures.

Even MRIs for breast cancer aren’t useful, according to a recent study.

The lesson here seems to be doctors need to pay more attention to evaluating new imaging technology’s concrete benefits to patients.

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