Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our debt to research animals...

If you google for "animal research" and then switch to the pictures section you will see many very upsetting pictures depicting animals that have been used in research. I first want to point out that these pictures are not representative of the way it looks in most laboratories. Secondly, the animals in the pictures may not have suffered to anywhere near the extent that people uploading these pictures want to make you believe.

I do not think that being a laboratory animal is a great life for an animal, however, nor do I think that it is the worst fate an animal can suffer. I would personally much rather be a laboratory rat than a cow or a chicken that is slaughtered to become food for us. There are a number of reasons why animal research is not as bad as some people want us to believe. First of all, only in a minority of all the conducted experiments do the animals experience any pain, and when they do they are nearly always given anesthetics (one exception to this is when pain is the research subject in which case it is a necessary evil). Secondly, researchers, in order to get good data, must make sure that their animals are feeling well. Data from sick laboratory animals is worthless. Of course, the well being of laboratory animals is also inspected by committees on a regular basis and labs which do not take proper care of the animals will be shut down. Thirdly, for me, personally, working with laboratory animals actually made me value animals more than before. Rats are, believe it or not, smart playful and social, and working with them have made me more concerned about animal welfare in general. I now buy ecological meat, eggs from free outdoor hens (free walking indoor is no good either!), and in general try to buy products that have not caused unnecessary pain for any animals. This brings me to my next point.

I often hear from different people that many animal experiment that are carried out are unnecessary. To some extent I agree, I think that animal experiments that are done to develop new cosmetics are definitely unnecessary, let us use what we have got and spare these animals. Nevertheless, to conduct an experiment involving animals at a university one have to argue, very convincingly, that the research can further our knowledge in some way, and one must justify any hypothetical pain that the animals must endure. It is also not true that there are other methods that we could use just as well as animal research. Sure, studies can be done in vitro (that is, in a dish), but today these methods cannot replace animal research.

In the end I guess it all comes down to what your values are. Is it worth it to sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop medicines that can cure us as well as animals. My answer is yes, but I don't think it is entirely obvious, so think for yourself. Perhaps we should be content with just living 48 years instead of around 75 years, and perhaps we should just accept that some diseases will kill us (I am not being sarcastic here).

I want to end with a list of some of the discoveries that would not have been possible was it not for animal research, you can find a much longer list and more information about animal research here. Our dept to laboratory animals, as you can see from the list below (remember this is not a complete list), is indeed great. The laboratory animals have helped us alot, and for that they deserve our respect, but should we stop doing these types of experiments?

Vaccines: Anthrax, Smallpox, Polio, Yellow fever, Measles, Hapatitis, Whooping cough...

Drugs: Insulin, Antibiotics, Birth control pills, pain killers, anti malaria drugs, chemotherapy...

Treatable conditions: Anemia, PKU, Herpes, Allergies, Chlamydia...

Life prolonging treatments: Diabetes, Epilepsy, Leukemia...

Other major discoveries: DNA, Virus, Electron microscope, ECG, EEG, Pacemaker, Artificial hips, x-rays, monoclonal antibodies, ultrasound, MRI, Artificial limbs, Effects of smoking alcohol and drugs, How lifestyle affects health

Surgery: Blood transfusions, Coronary bypass, Organ transplants, Breast cancer

Friday, November 24, 2006

My current research project (fall 06) - Electrophysiology and stereotypes...

Since I am doing the "C-course" in psychology at Lund University, I am expected to carry out a research project. I was lucky to be allowed to use the rather new EEG lab that has been set up. This allowed me to do an experiment that I have been thinking about since the spring but which I have not had the chance to do until now

So what is my project about? I am actually trying to do something as sexy as measuring peoples' stereotypes using EEG. An EEG (see picture) measures the electrical activity that the brain generates. This electrical activity differs depending on what the brain is doing. If you are sleepy the brain will start to generate what is referred to as alpha waves (a funny consequence of this is that you can actually see when your subjects are starting to get fed up with your experiment), if you are dead there will be a straight line, an epileptic seizure is characterized by wild activity etc etc. In fact, the brain also generates characteristic wave patterns in response to certain events, these patterns are called event-related potentials or ERPs.

In my experiment I am looking at a specific wave called the N400, N because it is a negative deflection, and 400 because it occurs 400 milliseconds after the stimuli was presented. The N400 appears when our brain perceives something unexpected. For example, when the brain hears a sentence such as "Jack took the bus to town to meet some of his boxershorts", the brain says, wrooong!! (an N400 wave appears). Similarly, if famous faces from different occupations e.g. Robert De Niro and Billy the clown, are presented serially, the N400 also appears, thus suggesting that our brain has recognized that these two stimuli did not belong to the same category.

I am reasoning that stereotype incongruency, that is, things that go against your stereotype, will also elicit this N400 component. To test this prediction I have obtained a collection of attractive and unattractive faces as well as a collection of negative and positive words. Presumably the N400 component will appear when I present to my participants an attractive face followed by a negative word, or conversely an unattracitve face followed by a positive word. The reason I believe so is that there is a lot of evidence suggesting that we associate attractive faces with positive characteristics and unattractive faces with negative characteristics. To be continued...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trofim Lysenko - why we should not mix ideology and science

What happens when ideology becomes more important than scientifical critical thinking?

Trofim Lysenko (see picture), quickly became a very prominent "scientist" in the soviet union following an article printed in Pravda (aka "the truth") about this barefooted peasant who "solved problems". Even though he had little education and was barely literate Lysenko progressed rapidly in the soviet system and it did not take many years before he controlled much of the agricultural policy in the soviet union. Lysenko was a practical man who cared about practical issues rather than theoretical nonsense. When something appealed to Lysenko's intuition there was really no need for rigorous testing, consider for instance his citation "In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result you will obtain it". When he had achieved a powerful position in the soviet union Lysenko's intuition became so important that criticzing him was associated with grave dangers. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist who have made important contributions to genetics was one of Lysenko's many victims

Lysenko did not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution because organisms do not "compete", they co-operate. Based on this belief Lysenko ordered that trees should be planted in groups so that they would co-operate (perhaps he was a well-meaning man after all). The result: only 5% of the trees planted flourished, 15% survived, huge economical costs to the soviet union. Lysenko also believed that environment meant everything. Give a seed a good environment and it will flourish. The result of this: availability of meat and vegetables was no higher in 1953 than in 1900 when Tsar Nicholas II reigned the country, millions of Russians starved. In fact, Lysenko even believed that one could easily change one species into another species by manipulating the environment, and indeed "scientists" began reporting studies in which they changed bacteria into viruses and even a rabbit into a chicken!

This history shows the danger of letting ideals steer science. Though he may have been a well meaning man, Lysenko ignored what was known about agriculture and the Russian people suffered the consequences. As I have previously argues, I think it would be a mistake to ignore what we know about human nature when we design our society. Under what conditions do people tend to co-operate, and when do we not co-operate?, what differences between the sexes should we expect and accept rather than fight against (and which should we fight against)? I think that the most important lesson of the above is that whatever ideological motives we have we should not let these motives affect the way we do scientific research...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Should we use stem cells?

"Stem cells fend off lung cancer".

I just read a news article with this headline in the journal Science. Apparently, because stem cells are rather similar to cancer cells, the immune system adaptation that occur when you inject stem cells into the lung, will subsequently help the immune system kill cancer cells as well. That is, the immune system treats stem cells as invaders, why they develop a defense against these cells. If the same immune system, on a subsequent occasion, encounters a cancer cell it will, because of the strong resemblance, wrongly "assume" that it is another stem cell and therefore get rid of it. Out of 25 mice that were given stem cells, 20 were able to kill a subsequent cancer. A slightly altered compound increased the cancer survival rate to 100%!!! This should be compared to the 0% survival rate experienced by mice that did not get any compound.

Of course, this does not mean that we can cure cancer in humans, at least not yet. Mice for some reason tend to respond better to cancer therapies, but nevertheless, I think the figures above justifies some excitement. I think that stem cell research is one of the methods with the best potential. This research not only has the potential to cure cancer, but various other diseases and insults as well, including Parkinson disease, chronic pain, and strokes.

So what about the larger issue? Are stem cells individuals? I guess that if you believe that a cell with all the genes necessary to build a human being is an individual, then stem cell research is murder. However, if this is your belief then scratching your nose or stepping into a shower would be genocide. All the cells that die when you do one of these two things could produce an individual if you put it into an egg and allowed it to mature. So why should stem cells be protected as if they were full grown individuals? A fully conscious monkey, capable of feeling pain and stress, has barely any rights! That is puzzling to me. Furthermore I think not doing stem cell research is unethical, considering the huge potential. Not doing stem cell research is the same as saying to those who have Parkinson or those who are suffering from chronic pain, that "we care more about these few cells than we care about finding a cure for you".

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ethics of an atheist

One common misconcepetion about atheists is that they do not care about anything, after all, why would anyone want to be good unless they are rewarded with a place in heaven?, and what would stop someone who do not fear the eternal fire in hell from rape and murder?

I think statements such as these say more about religious people than it does about atheists. It reveals that the only reason they are acting morally is because of the reward that they believe will be given to them.

For me there is really no egoistic reason for behaving morally, it is just something I try to do for its own sake, acting morally is simply good. I think that ethics in the 21st century should not be based on an ancient book of fiction which advocates "turning the other cheek" on one page and stoning to death those who do not share your faith on another page. Rather, I advocate thinking rationally about ethics.

I personally subscribe to some form of utilitarianism, meaning that we should try to maximize happiness in the word. I say some form of utilitarianism, because sometimes I think it can be questioned whether the end justify the means. Another sound ethical principle in my opinion is the one of the "original position" advocated by Harvard professor John Rawls. According to Rawls it should not matter where or by whom you are born. If being born in a certain part of the society or by a certain class means entering a life of unhappiness or even slavery, then it is not a good society. A leader, thus should be able to say that "if I was reborn tomorrow, it would make no difference to me where or by whom I was born". This may be a utopian idea, but I think it is a good guideline.

How does a belief in evolution fit into all this? Surely, evolution teaches us that the killing rivals and raping is good? No! Evolution, says nothing about what is good and what is bad, that is for us to decide. Evolution can teach us many things about the ways in which humans work and what kinds of instincts to expect. Evolutionary psychology can give us invaluable information in the building of a just world. Not taking into account what we know about humanity when building a society just seems rather stupid to me. I will end with a quote by a great Professor, Leda Cosmides (see picture), whose class I had the privilege to attend; "Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature!"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Experimental evidence of evolution

For those who say that the theory of evolution is a belief just like intelligent design is a belief, here is another piece of evidence for you. The two species shown to the left are involved in a "red queen" antagonistic co-evolution race. The wasp feeds on the larvae of the house fly, and because wasps that eat more larvae are more likely to survive and have offspring, the population as a whole become more and more efficient predators. The fly on the other hand must develop defenses against these wasps. Those larvae that are unable to defend themselves against the predator will die and therefore cannot contribute any genes to the next generation. In sum while the wasps become more and more efficient killers, the flies get better at protecting themselves, thus the relative frequencies remain stable.

What happens though if you, for each new generation, take out, say all the surviving flies, that is, all the flies that were able to survive the attacks from the wasps, and instead introduce a new population of flies that have never encountered these wasps before? What happens is that virtually all flies are killed! The wasps have evolved by natural selection, but the flies have not. If you do the opposite and introduce naive wasps to flies that have had a chance to evolve, then the relative frequencies tilt to the advantage of the fly. The wasps starve to death because they cannot overcome the defenses that the house fly has evolved.

This experiment has actually been done, way back in 1963 by Plmentel and Al-Hafldh, and yet, there are still tons of people who claim that the theory of evolution asserts that all species were formed accidentally (not to mention all the Christians who firmly believes this is what the theory of evolution says). How is the process illuminated in these experiments chance? Please, someone explain that to me, I do not understand

Why we need the theory of evolution to explain HIV

If you are wondering why the HIV virus unlike other viruses kills you and if you have not accepted the catholic explanation that all Africans who get aids are sinners and deserved it you might want to continue reading.

The reason that our otherwise extremely impressive immune system is not able to cope with the HIV virus in the long run, is that the virus has a very high mutation and proliferation rate. Following any type of virus infection, the number of viruses in your body will go up exponentially, however, once your immune system is able to recognize the virus it will mobilize its troops (the white blood cells) and destroy the invader.

The same thing happens when someone is infected with HIV, first the number of viruses go up, then down. However, because of its rapid mutation rate, some of the HIV viruses will change so much that the immune system no longer recognize the virus. This new virus, which has evolved by natural selection will proliferate. Our immune system will soon be able to recognize the new invader, but then yet a different virus will be present. This constant race will go on for about ten years. At that time the HIV virus will have killed of so many white blood cells (the HIV virus is specifically targeting white blood cells) that the body can no longer defend itself against otherwise non-fatal infection, and you will die, perhaps, from a simple flu.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A few interesting facts from "Molecular biology of the cell"

Here follows a few of the astonishing facts that you will learn if you read "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts et. al.

Did you know that
- During cell division your DNA is replicated at a speed of 1million nucleotide base pairs per second, and yet a mistake only occurs one time for every 1billion base pairs!
- Each nucleus in your body contains aproximately 2 meters of DNA in a nucleus that is six micrometers in diameter, this is equivalent to packing 40 kilometers of fine thread into a tennisball!
- All the ATP in our body (about one billion molecules) is used and recycled every 1-2 minutes. That means that we use and recycle 10000000 molecules of ATP per second!
- A extension of a grove in an enzyme by one nanometer can reduce its efficiency in carrying out its reaction by more than a thousand fold!