Archive for category Skepticism

You Can’t Moisturise Away Depression – The Commodification of Self Care

I live with anxiety and depression. I’m not alone in this with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem each year. I regularly feel like getting out of bed is an insurmountable task, that I’m drowning in the weight of my failings and that life is hopeless. Sometimes the world is so scary, so fraught with risk, that I’m not sure I can keep myself safe. When I’m in a particularly low ebb, it can feel like I won’t ever get better and I rely on self care to get me through the day, and maintain some amount of wellbeing for other days.

Self care is a difficult, but essential, part of recovery for a lot of people. It isn’t glamorous or hashtag Instagram worthy for the most part. It’s doing the basic things you need to do to survive, and hopefully thrive at some point. It’s getting out of bed, showering, sticking to a treatment plan that works for you (be that therapy or medication or a combination of both), working towards good sleep hygiene, cooking and eating something nutritious, exercising in a way you can and paying your bills. A lot of this might seem pretty easy to a well person, but it’s not. It can be hard but it’s necessary.Two Instagram posts from @makedaisychains from the artist's "boring self-care". On the left is a bed reading "changed my bed sheets" and on the right a heart shaped dinner plate with the words "cooked and ate a nourishing meal"

Self care has become a huge trend on social media, in fact this week is #selfcareweek. Your social timelines are likely to be filled with pictures of people practicing self care, though it might not look like what I just described. Self care has been utilised by brands and influencers who have everything you need to be better…at a price. There is no shortage of companies willing to exploit illness to sell their bath bombs, face masks, cosy blankets and scented candles. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things, what I don’t love is that self care is being redefined to be about expensive pampering sessions and products that aren’t going to have the impact they claim.A woman relaxing in a bubble bath surrounded by lit candles

To get a real idea of the problem, let’s look at some of those products, shall we? Goop have a ‘Self Care for the Cubicle-Bound’ kit which promises to “sharpen your wits, improve your mood, and liven up your skin”, for a hefty price tag of £380. If that is too much for you to invest, don’t worry, the combination of “potent, miracle” face oil, cuticle cream, lipstick and dental floss probably wasn’t going to be all that helpful anyway. For the much lower cost of £25.99 you could purchase an Anxiety Kit, but it’s contents of an aromatherapy roller, positive thinking deck and healing crystal are no less problematic.  If a subscription is more your thing, you could pay £38.00 monthly to receive a WILDWOMAN box which claims to be able to make you “live the life you truly desire and deserve” through a book, stationary, crystals and sweet treats.

A selection of brightly coloured cut crystals on a wooden table

As well as hawking chocolates, pretty stationary and beauty products, most of these packages also include the usual pseudoscience culprits. Crystals feature heavily, which makes sense because those who endorse crystals claim they support and heal your body, and can be used in many ways including wearing in a locket, rolling on your face and even inserting inside yourself. However, there remains no scientific evidence that crystals are useful at all. Similarly, aromatherapy products are included in a lot of these self care kits despite there being very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. With all of that considered, you could be setting yourself back hundreds of pounds to receive a whole heap of nothing useful, and potentially end up feeling worse that it hasn’t worked when you were promised that it would.

If having a bubble bath or taking a nap under a fluffy blanket makes you feel better, great, do that. Taking time to enjoy small pleasures is definitely an aspect of self care, but it isn’t the whole story. Mental health conditions are never going to be cured by having a dewy complexion or wearing a necklace with a phrase of affirmation on it. It’s important we don’t accept that potentially vulnerable people are being peddled luxury (and mostly useless) products in the name of self care. Commodifying recovery isn’t okay and it shouldn’t be a trend we allow to go unchallenged.

 

A photo of Christina Berry-Moorcroft. She is a white woman with dark, curly hair. She is wearing a brightly coloured scarf and bright pink lipstick. Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a dementia carers charity, and Trustee for a women’s refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked internationally on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality.  In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ChrissieBM for political ramblings, mental health honesty and far too many selfies.

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Can video gaming help save lives?

Gamers get a bad rep in society (no seriously, we did a panel on it at QED) but every year gamers of all kinds get together to do something brilliant: Extra Life. What is Extra Life? It’s a fundraising event started by gamers back in 2008 which has raised over $40 million for children’s hospitals. Each year from November 3rd people all over the world stream marathons of games of all kinds: from video games to Dungeons and Dragons. They do it not for prestige or fake internet points, but to fund lifesaving treatments for sick kids.

A blue background with a family (two parents, two kids, two grandparents) playing a board game. Over is white lettering saying "game day is November 3!" and the Extra Life logo with the tagline "play games, heal kids" plus the logo for the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals'"

MSS have never been involved with Extra Life before, but this year more than any other it’s something I feel strongly about so I reached out. Why?

On April 28th a little boy named Alfie Evans passed away from an untreatable, progressive neuro-degenerative disorder. If you’re a layman like me, translation: he was born with a rare genetic disorder that affected his brain and got worse over time. You may have heard of Alfie Evans, probably not for the excellent work of the doctors and nurses who treated him during his 18 month stay in the ICU at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital here in Liverpool, but for the extended legal case between Alfie’s parents and Alder Hey which dominated the news in the early part of this year.

You can read more about the case all over the internet, but it is an unfortunate example of where religious agenda, poor media reporting and pseudoscience can harm not only patients; but hospitals and scientific institutions who become embroiled in their controversy. It is estimated that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital spent over £145,000 in legal fees during the case which concluded that continued life support was ‘unkind and inhumane’, and with pediatric ICU beds costing the NHS around £2000 per day that could amount to an additional £250,000 during the time where Alfie was kept on ventilators against doctors advice.

However, people’s lives are worth more than money: and the most heartbreaking thing about this case was not the NHS funds that could have been used elsewhere but the unnecessary suffering endured by Alfie himself, the exploitation of Alfie’s parents grief and the abuse of Alder Hey staff at the hands of misinformed protesters dubbed ‘Alfies Army’. My thoughts go out to Alfie’s parents, the families of seriously ill children everywhere, and I stand in solidarity with the medical professionals who work bravely and tirelessly each day to do what is objectively best for their patients. Even in the face of hostility from media and misguided public opinion.

A photo of Alder Hey Children's Hospital - the hospital was recently redesigned and rebuilt using ideas from children. Two of the blocks of windows are surrounded by coloured tiling and the roof is curved and sloped.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

So this year for Extra Life MSS are kindly donating £250 to Alder Hey, thank you! November 3rd has come and gone, but it’s not too late to join in by donating yourself, or watching and supporting an Extra Life stream to see what all this gamer stuff is about.

A photo of Lana's face. Lana is white with blondish red, straight hair just past her shoulders. She's wearing a black top and smokey dark eye make up. She is looking at the camera and smiling.

Lana Donaghy

Lana Donaghy is a former games developer and professional video gamer: spending years questing through Azeroth, competing with some of the world’s top World of Warcraft players. These days Lana works in software development and is still a devoted gamer who loves esports. If you want to read more of her ramblings and obscure video game jargon or see pictures of her cat you should check out her twitter @lanadonaghy

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Skeptics in the Pub Quiz!

When:  Thursday,November 29th 2018, 7.30 – 11.00 PM
Where:
The Casa Bar, 29 Hope Street

PLEASE NOTE: this event will take place DOWNSTAIRS in The Casa. Regretfully, this room is not wheelchair accessible.

On this rare fifth Thursday in November we’re organising a general knowledge pub quiz.

Join your host, Dr Tom Williamson, in The Vines for a night of rational enquiry; it’s free to enter and there will be prizes for the best performances on the night! Tom is, of course, excluded from winning a prize, unless you count being carried aloft through the streets of Liverpool on the shoulders of his peers for producing a magnificent quiz. Everyone is welcome, feel free to share and invite your friends…

More information:

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Sally Morgan evicted from Celebrity Big Brother

This week, the latest series of Celebrity Big Brother came to an end, with Coronation Street actor and person-I-just-Googled-to-find-out-what-he’s-famous-for Ryan Thomas emerging victorious at the end of the month-long run. While the comings and goings of a Channel 5 reality show might not normally be the kind of event that inspire a skeptic to take to WordPress and tap out a blog, this series did have one particular point of interest for the keen critical thinker.

Billed this year as having an “Eye of the storm” theme, the celebrities (or approximations thereof) entering the house had all been chosen for their controversial past and presence at the centre of a “media storm”. Those celebrities included Sally Morgan – the well-known stage performer who claims to be able to pass messages to audience members from their deceased loved ones – who made it to this year’s final. Show producers explained why they believed she fit the ‘eye of the storm’ criteria:

Sally experienced a media storm after a report suggested she had used a hidden earpiece at one of her performances.

two CCTV cameras

While not even morbid curiosity nor dedication to his craft could convince this skeptical investigator to become a regular viewer of the show, Sally’s involvement has not gone without interest, with tabloid articles regularly setting off various Google Alerts to keep me up to date with day-to-day happenings in the house.

Celebrity Big Brother 2018: Sally Morgan CAUGHT OUT after Rodrigo Alves truth task
– Express, 23rd August 2018

Celebrity Big Brother viewers in hysterics as psychic Sally Morgan fails another prediction
– Metro, 5th September 2018

It could be argued that Sally’s involvement in this year’s Celebrity Big Brother was curiously timed, coming as it does at the start of her regular Autumn tour schedule. Having seen Sally’s performances on a number of occasions, and having been in the vicinity of several others, I’ve seen first-hand the audiences she has been able to draw: on at least one occasion at Liverpool’s Empire theatre, Sally’s audience filled almost all of the seats in the lower stalls, and as many as half of the balcony seats. For a room which boasts a 2,348 capacity, that may have been as many as 2,000 tickets sold. This, I understand, was not atypical for Sally at the time – and given that her tours at one point included in as many as 200 dates per year, her audience reach would have been substantial.

It might therefore seem unusual for Sally to spend the opening of the Autumn period locked in a house with the barmaid from Cheers (no, not that one, the other one). Sally’s tour will still be going ahead, however, starting next week at The Met in Abertillery – which, as best as I could tell, is a venue Sally hasn’t appeared at before (although I could of course be wrong). Being unfamiliar with the venue, and indeed with Abertillery, I thought it worth find out what capacity was, to see how it compares with Sally’s regular venues. According to The Met’s website, the capacity of the biggest room in the facility, The Victorian Theatre, is just 216 seats.

empty theatre seats

As this seemed to be a surprisingly small venue for Sally to be playing, I wondered if this was a one-off, or whether this was typical of her current tour. Interestingly, her Liverpool show this year is not at the Empire Theatre as in previous years, but at the considerably-more-modest Epstein Theatre – boasting a capacity of, according to Wikipedia, just 380 seats.

Curious as to what the rest of her tour looked like, I spent 20 minutes or so on Google, looking up venues Sally will be playing at, and checking websites for their capacity. What I found is therefore based solely on what the venues declare their capacity to be, and where there were numerous rooms on offer or various configurations available I opted for the biggest capacity stated – reasoning that it would be very strange, though not impossible, that a venue understated its maximum capacity.

Taking into account Sally’s Autumn 2018 tour dates as they appeared this morning, her capacities are as follows:

Date Venue Town Capacity
19-Sep The Met Abertillery 216
20-Sep Huntingdon Hall Worcester 330
21-Sep Octagon Theatre Yeovil 622
24-Sep Regis Centre Bognor 357
25-Sep Epstein Theatre Liverpool 380
26-Sep City Hall Newcastle 2135
27-Sep Burnley Mechanics Burnley 493
28-Sep William Aston Hall Wrexham 1200
03-Oct The Radlett Centre Hertfordshire 300
05-Oct Margate Winter Gardens Margate 1400
08-Oct Guildhall Winchester Winchester 620
11-Oct Royal Hippodrome Theatre Eastbourne 500
12-Oct Assembly Hall Theatre Tunbridge Wells 1020
17-Oct Palace Theatre Mansfield 534
18-Oct Phoenix Theatre Castleford 300
18-Oct Pavilion Theatre Rhyl 1031
22-Oct Cork Opera House Cork 1000
23-Oct Town Hall Theatre Galway 393
24-Oct Theatre Royal Waterford 432
25-Oct The Helix Theatre Dublin 1860
26-Oct Ulster Hall Belfast 1000
27-Oct Millennium Forum Londonderry 1000
30-Oct The Grand Pavilion Matlock Bath 550
31-Oct The Orchard Theatre Dartford 956
01-Nov Hazlitt Theatre Maidstone 382
02-Nov Palace Theatre Redditch 420
05-Nov Stockport Plaza Stockport 1314
06-Nov Grand Theatre Lancaster 457
07-Nov New Theatre Royal Lincoln 475
08-Nov Melton Theatre Melton Mowbray 340
14-Nov New Victoria Theatre Woking 1300
19-Nov The Brindley Theatre Runcorn 358
20-Nov The Festival Drayton Centre Drayton 200
21-Nov Queen’s Theatre Barnstaple 680
22-Nov Wycombe Swan High Wycombe 1076

While there are clearly some sizeable venues in there – Newcastle City Hall and The Helix in Dublin in particular – I was quite surprised by how many smaller venues are included in the list. Of the 35 Autumn Tour dates, the average capacity was 732, and the median was just 550 (suggesting the average had been skewed upwards by those Newcastle and Dublin venues).

Equally, I was a little surprised to see the only sold-out shows on the list as of this morning are the 330-seater Huntingdon Hall in Worcester, the 357-seater Regis Hall in Bognor, and the 300-seater Radlett Centre in Hertfordshire. In fact, as of this morning, a the box office informed me that there were still 29 tickets available for the first show of the tour, the 216-seater in Abertillery.

full theatre crowd

All of this may, of course, mean nothing at all – it may be that larger venues weren’t available on the dates Sally needed them, or that Sally wanted to go to smaller towns to reach fans who didn’t want to travel to bigger cities like Birmingham, Edinburgh or Glasgow (all notably absent from her schedule), or that Sally had decided to aim for more intimate venues. However, another plausible explanation is that fewer people are interested in seeing stage mediumship shows these days. It’ll certainly be interesting to see whether Sally’s fifth-place Celebrity Big Brother finish changes that.

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Guest Authors

The Merseyside Skeptics Society is a non-profit group who aims to promote scientific skepticism and rational thinking. While we do have an organising board, to make decisions in the interest of the group and to plan specific group activities, we welcome the input of our members and attendees. That’s why we have an open monthly board meeting before each social event which anyone is welcome to attend and contribute to discussion.

It’s also why we have recently relaunched our blog showcasing the talent of some of the wonderful members and attendees of the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

We’ve had some really interesting topics with plant cell biologist and science communicator, Dr Geraint Parry explaining the differences between genetically modified and gene edited plants, Dr Sarah Clement has written about whether green spaces are really good for you, Christina Berry-Moorcroft wrote about the value of voluntourism and Karin McClure told us all about the GAPS diet.

If you’ve missed any of our previous posts you can find them in our archives.

We have some exciting topics coming up in the next few weeks but in the meantime, if you have any ideas for blog post topics or you think you’d like to write something for our blog, get in touch with our blog editor and let us know.

 

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Arsenic cures cancer!

Last week The Daily Mail boldly asked “Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug”. It’s worth pointing out here, that even in the subheading bullet points the Mail Online downplayed their excitement a little, de-escalating from arsenic being a potential “miracle cure” to “makes chemotherapy more effective”.

Headline from the Mail Online reading "Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug"

The Mail Online wasn’t the only one to cover this story. Medical News Today headlined “Poison or cure? Arsenic can help treat cancer, study finds” while Science Daily said “Arsenic in combination with an existing drug could combat cancer – An ancient medicine shows new promise” and Harvard Magazine asked “Is Arsenic a Key Ingredient in the Battle Against Cancer?”. So, the Mail Online seem to be in good company in reporting this apparently exciting news.

New use for a traditional medicine?

One thing all of these stories had in common was the detailing of arsenic in traditional Chinese medicine. Harvard Magazine quoted study author Kun Ping Lu: “In Chinese traditional medicine, “Arsenic has been used for thousands of years,” said Lu. “Its oxidized form is the active ingredient” for a concoction the Chinese called “magic bullet,” which was used to treat a specific kind of leukemia, APL”.

Arsenic, in fact, has been claimed to treat a whole range of diseases throughout history – in Ancient Greek times it was used to treat ulcers and in Chinese Traditional Medicine it’s been used for over 2000 years. Arsenic was once added to Indian Ayurvedic herbal remedies and when Paracelsus, an Italian Professor of Medicine from the 1500s was skeptical of the old methods of balancing humours to treat disease, he introduced arsenic as an alternative. Paracelsus, in fact, stumbled across a genuine therapeutic action of arsenic in its ability to treat syphilis – an indication for which arsenic was used well into the 20th Century until antibiotics came along.

an open brown medicine bottle laying on its side containing a white powder and labelled "acid arsenic"

But arsenic has not only been a persistent element in traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat cancer – first, to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia in the 1930s and later to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). Arsenic trioxide (ATO) has been used to treat APL since its approval in 1995.

The study

The study the Mail Online et al. referenced was summarised in Nature Communications earlier this year in an article titled “Arsenic targets Pin1 and cooperates with retinoic acid to inhibit cancer-driving pathways and tumor-initiating cells”. The study is apparently based on three things:

  • A protein called Pin1 is important in cancer
  • Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is a treatment for cancer
  • All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) inhibits Pin1

A good introduction to any peer-reviewed article will use scientific literature to convince you that the question the researchers have asked is a valid one and set their work within the context of what is known in the field. At first glance, this article is particularly industrious in the effort to convince the reader on the three areas above. They strongly stress that “Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer. Pin1 is hyperactivated in most human cancers and correlates with poor clinical outcome”.

ATO and leukaemia

ATO has been approved for use in a certain kind of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) for many years and is successfully used in combination with ATRA in patients with APL. There are very few alternative treatments for this form of leukaemia and ATO combined with ATRA has low toxicity.

The underlying mechanism of this treatment is down to the existence of a protein called PML-RARα which causes APL. PML-RARα doesn’t exist in normal conditions however patients with APL have a genetic mutation which produces this fusion of the genes for two individual proteins PML and RARα – this generates the fusion protein, PML-RARα. It doesn’t really matter what PML-RARα does, only that it drives APL and it doesn’t exist outside of disease. Studies have shown that ATO binds to the PML part of this fusion protein and degrades it.

an image taken from one of the study figures showing the chemical structure of Pin1 and the chemical structure of ATO - the two are shown overlapping to indicate where ATO binds in Pin1

The chemical structure of Pin1 is shown with ATO (I) sitting within in apparent binding pocket on the protein. This image is adapted from the paper.

ATO and Pin1

But the authors of this study were interested in the effect of arsenic on a completely different protein – Pin1.

They don’t really explain why they thought arsenic might remove Pin1 in cancer cells. They used a technique to identify ATRA as a drug of interest, but it seems like they only looked at ATO because it’s already used in combination with ATRA.

In their study the authors find that treating cancer cells with arsenic in the lab reduces the levels of Pin1. They also show that ATO and ATRA combined, reduce cancer cell growth and reduce tumour size in mice. And they go some way towards explaining the mechanism behind these interactions and discounting alternative explanations for their findings.

In many ways, it’s a solid paper.

So why am I skeptical?

There are a few reasons, though, to be wary of the findings in this paper and the way it has been presented. Firstly, it’s the particularly hyped up nature of the story – arsenic has been used to treat leukaemia since the mid-1990s, this isn’t really news. But it does make me wonder if there’s a particular reason this article might be so strongly endorsed.

The authors also don’t really explain why they picked arsenic in the first place other than they’re interested in ATRA and Pin1… In fact they’re very, very interested in Pin1.

They argue “that Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer” – which is particularly interesting because as a cancer researcher with a PhD in cancer cell biology, I’ve never even heard of this protein. They reference three papers to support their claim but two of them are from the group’s own lab – the final paper they reference, an article titled “Pin1 in cancer” is from a separate source. This unrelated (and therefore, unbiased to some degree) article argues that Pin1 is hyperactivated in around 10% of all cancers. That number is pretty high, but it is certainly not enough to say that Pin1 is a “critical driver” in “most human cancers”.

So why are the authors so keen on Pin1? The suggestion that it’s a “unique drug target” might give us a clue.

five stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right

At the end of the article is the heading “Competing interests” under which is stated “K.P.L. and X.Z.Z. are inventors of Pin1 technology, which was licensed by BIDMC to Pinteon Therapeutics. Both Dr. Lu and Dr. Zhou own equity in, and consult for, Pinteon. Their interests were reviewed and are managed by BIDMC in accordance with its conflict of interest policy. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.”

Pinteon Therapeutics is a “private venture backed biotechnology company focused on the discovery and development of breakthrough therapeutics targeting Pin1” and we can therefore assume that this company will make money from the generation of Pin1 inhibitors that can be used to treat cancer.

Of course, Pin1 inhibition might well make for an interesting cancer target – there’s no disputing that – but its promise might well be overstated both in this article and in the media coverage of the article.

Me? I’m suspending judgement until we see more compelling evidence.

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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