Posts Tagged skeptic

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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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The QED Skeptics in the Pub forum – topics wanted!

At every QED there has been a Skeptics in the Pub Forum – an open forum to discuss issues around the starting, running and expanding of a local Skeptics in the Pub group.

Whether you are a current organiser looking to share your successes, or want tips on how to expand, or are looking to set up a new group in your hometown, this is the place to be.

This year the forum will be moderated by:

  • Ian Scott – Ian is the founder of Glasgow Skeptics, who in 2014 hosted the largest public debate on Scottish independence of any non-aligned organisation. Ian is also the Acting Chief Executive of the Humanist Society Scotland, and Events Manager at the British Humanist Association.
  • Kash Farooq – Kash is an organiser of Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub and the co-founder of the popular PubhD network.
  • Alice Howarth – Alice is a PhD cancer researcher, co-host of the Skeptics with a K podcast and Secretary of the Merseyside Skeptics Society.

The forum will mainly be an open Q&A session, but if you have any topic that you’d particularly like to be covered, please leave a comment below and we’ll try to make sure it’s included during the discussion.

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A List of Skeptical Things…

People are always asking me what skepticism is. As this is a notoriously difficult question to answer accurately in a few words, I tend to mumble something incoherent and run away. The same goes for questions about what happens at Skeptics in The Pub events. Trying to dispel the notion that we simply get together for a few drinks and slag things off is difficult to do in casual conversation. Especially as Skeptics in The Pub does occasionally fit that description. I would rather never have to answer these sorts of questions at all. The problem is that at the same time, I do want to convey to people outside of our strange little world what it is exactly that we do, and why it interests me. Why do I go to skeptical events at all? What first grabbed  me and pulled me into this world that so many of my friends and family think is some kind of science cult for the culturally depressed? Read the rest of this entry »

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Derren Brown Investigates… Joe Power

Sometimes, just sometimes, I could almost be convinced that there’s someone up there listening. Not all the time, of course, and only half-heartedly – I’m not about to go all Goddy on you guys – but who could blame me, when things like this happen:

Derren Brown – beardy mind-meddler and generally top fella – investigates those who claim to have psychic powers… starting with my old mate Joe Power. I’ll come to Joe in a moment (we’ve a bit of a history), but first I’d like to say well done to Derren. I remember after his ‘Messiah’ show, it looked like he was heading into a more publicly skeptical position. While that hasn’t happened quite as far as we’d have liked (the lottery show for example), this latest show, coupled with his role in ‘Science of Scams’ suggests that skepticism is something Derren’s focusing on a little more. If that’s the case, this is excellent news – where Randi has been a major figurehead for decades (possibly even centuries, he seems to always have existed), he needs somebody to help shoulder the weight and take up the slack. With his public persona, showmanship, reputation and expertise, I really think Derren can play that role, should he desire to.

One person who certainly can’t play that role, is Mr Joe Power. For those of you not aware, Joe and the Merseyside Skeptics Society (and myself in particular) have something of a past – in fact, long before the 10:23 Campaign, taking on Joe Power was one of the first pieces of skeptical activism I got involved in. Having criticised his appearance in a local paper, blindly promoting him as ‘The Man Who Sees Dead People’, I decided to meet Joe Power at his Liverpool book signing, and invited him to take the million dollar challenge. What I got wasn’t polite declination, but bizarre insults – with Joe genuinely comparing all skeptics to paedophilesYou can read the whole account here, and I recommend you do, to really get a feel for the kind of man Joe Power is. It was during this conversation that I heard Joe had been investigated for a prominent TV show, and at the time I put two and two together and predicted it was Derren Brown who he was referring to.

I can’t wait to see the show on May 10th.

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Atheism: Those Who Know Do Not Say, Those Who Say Do Not Know

Your New Facebook Profile Photo

With the coming of a very low-key, very gentle pro-atheism awareness campaign on facebook in ‘A’ week (http://www.aweekonfacebook.com/, Facebook event, #aweek Twittertag ), I’ve been reminded of the hesitation that many atheists feel towards the promotion of atheism in any way. Talking about any type of promotion or advocacy in favour of atheism as annoying because “this is the sort of thing that X-, Y- or Z-ians/-ists/ers do” may not be exactly how the majority of atheists feel, but I’d say, and only from my own feeling (not very skeptical, but still), that a large majority of atheists either couldn’t care less in trying to spread ideas and grow our mostly merry, but sometimes quite grumpy band of disbelievers, or are very uncomfortable with the thought of trying to actively or passively win people over to the idea that, maybe, they should give up the idea of an invisible Daddy In The Sky who grants wishes a little less frequently than you see the evil evidence of His Divine, or more humanly – if not humanely – divined, Will

But when you see the damage that religion does, and the toxic effect that a supreme, unquestionable authority and unquestioned afterlife can bring – from the banality and stupidity of the penny candle, crap wine and drain-filtering devices (pieces of The Christ’s Holy, suspiciously bread-like, Flesh must be saved from the insult of the sewers) of Catholicism (though after 2000 years on a bread and wine diet, I’m certain Jesus could make excellent use of modern facilities) to the horrendous tradition of wife-burning in Hindu ‘Sati’, thankfully both illegal and much reduced in modern India, or the unholy union of extreme Christianity in demonising a contraceptive layer of latex that could do so much to help the AIDS crisis – doesn’t this, shouldn’t this drive anyone with a rational bent and compassion for humanity towards doing what we can to reduce the influence of The Beast, even to simply kick the giant’s toe? Read the rest of this entry »

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