Monthly Archives: April 2010

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Margaret McCartney

Hurrah – sense sees through the day.

The British Chiropractic Association have evidently decided enough is enough from their statement BCA vs Simon Singh and have dropped their case against him.

Margaret McCartney

I do love the internet: at home and also at work, where I can find things faster, often, than searching through a textbook (filing not being my strong point.)

The pros and cons of using the internet for diagnosis have been noted and an interesting recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine  – Untangling the Web – Patients, Doctors, and the Internet – makes the point well. Information has to be good.

Margaret McCartney

I’m pleased to see the WHO acknowledging that there was not enough admission of the “uncertainties” about swine flu.WHO admits shortcomings in handling flu pandemic

If we learn one thing from the experience, surely it should be that we should absolutely accept the unknowns and then start to reduce them – with well-designed, clinical trials.

Clive Cookson

In the end it wasn’t even close. At a special general meeting last night, members of the Royal Institution voted 512 to 121 against a move to oust the board and bring in a new group of trustees.

The sad saga of the RI has fascinated scientific London since December when its charismatic director, Susan Greenfield, was made redundant in the midst of a financial crisis at the 211-year-old institution.

A high-powered group of dissident RI members – including Julian Hunt, former head of the Met Office, and Lisa Jardine, historian of science and chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority -  triggered the SGM. They felt that the 12-member board of trustees had unfairly made Greenfield the scapegoat for a crisis that was their collective responsibility.

But at last night’s meeting – attended by around 650 of the RI’s 2,400 members, who spilled out of the historic Faraday lecture theatre into libraries and galleries – the dissidents were strangely inarticulate.

They failed to make a convincing case to support a move that would have been unprecedented at a British charity: to sack all the trustees simultaneously. Members who spoke from the floor made clear that they were not prepared for such a revolution, whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

Nor did the dissidents make clear whether their primary motivation was to improve the RI’s governance or to reinstate Greenfield, who is suing the institution for sex discrimination and unfair dismissal.

Another important factor was the evidently strong feeling of RI staff that the present board should remain in place and Greenfield should not return.

After this vote of confidence by the membership, there are two priorities for the board and management.

Firstly, with losses running at £100,000 a month, the RI urgently needs new funds. Adrian de Ferranti, the chairman, said four donors had offered £8.75m in interest-free loans that might be convertible into gifts.

Secondly, the RI must recruit a top scientist (who is also a good communicator) to a leadership position. The current trustees and staff include no well-known scientists – which is clearly unacceptable in an institution that aims to be a world-class promoter of science.

Margaret McCartney

Most couples are aware of the potential hazards of putting off “trying for a baby” – and rightly so. As less than 2.2 per cent of women over 43 who undergo IVF are successful, it’s not as if there is an easy solution on hand for couples who fail to conceive naturally.

But now a host of fertility tests is piggybacking on to this fear that women (and, yes, men) may be leaving it too late. The most established test measures a woman’s follicle stimulating hormone, or FSH. This fluctuates slightly through the menstrual cycle, but rises in the menopause. However, this test is not useful for everyone, as it may not give much more meaningful information beyond what a woman already knows about her body.

Continue reading “The stork knows best”

Margaret McCartney

Over the past couple of decades, chlamydia screening has been discussed, started, changed, discussed, evaluated, disagreed with, and discussed again.

One thing I think has been missing is large scale Randomised Controlled Trials performed early on, and used to make cost-effective decisions.

Instead decisions have been made on trials that have now been decided as flawed, and last year the National Audit Office - Chlamydia testing ‘wasting money’ – concluded that millions have been wasted.

And this week the BMJ reports that screening for chlamydia with a single test doesn’t prevent pelvic inflammatory disease.  – Randomised controlled trial of screening for Chlamydia trachomatis to prevent pelvic inflammatory disease: the POPI (prevention of pelvic infection) trial

Obtaining more information will be nearly impossible – now that screening kits in GP surgeries are endemic, any more “pure” trials – where people are either screened as part of a study, or aren’t screened as part of a study, are going to be much harder to do.

Clive Cookson

Robots in motion are a mesmerising sight, even if they are doing a chore that would be very boring if carried out by a human. So it’s not surprising that one of the week’s most viewed videos on YouTube shows a Californian robot picking up towels from a pile of laundry and neatly folding them.

Views shouldn’t be fooled, though, into thinking that robotic deliverance from domestic chores is at hand.

For a start, the robot (made by a company called Willow Garage and programmed at the University of California, Berkeley) is very slow. The YouTube video is speeded up 50-fold, so what the machine appears to be doing in 30 seconds actually took 25 minutes.

Not only is the robotic housemaid maddeningly slow, it is also far from versatile. Can it iron? Sort very similar black socks into pairs from a pile of laundry? Stuff a duvet into its cover? No.

If you want the full academic paper, it’s here, with the splendid title: “Cloth Grasp Point Detection based on Multiple-View Geometric Cues with Application to Robotic Towel Folding”.

Robot researchers are always optimistic, and Berkeley team have been talking about producing useful household robots within five years. Don’t believe it.

Margaret McCartney

Shall we? The vegetable tide is turning. For those of us forcing vegetables into our children in the belief that they are essential to health, the news, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition reporting a very large study, is that vegetables don’t cut the risk of cancer in the way some analyses had found: Fruit, vegetables, and cancer prevention: a review of the epidemiological evidence

All those UK Department of Health ’5 a day’ campaigns, and attempts to wean us off chocolate bars and onto bananas may have wasted their efforts.

Margaret McCartney

this set of modules is rather good: and Angela Raffle, the public health consultant narrating, has a lovely voice. Quite impressive that it was sponsored by the NHS – if only the same common sense would filter into the actual screening programmes. And here’s another thing of interest to people who are sceptical about screening – a paper co-authored by UK surgeon Mike Baum on the possible hazards of surgery for breast abnormalities. This paper is interesting for a number of reasons. It explores a potential harm that may not have been known, or thought about, when screening programmes were being set up for breast cancer. What makes a good scientist I think has something to do with careful observation, and then challenging oneself and others when the results are unexpected or unexplained.

Health and science blog (Archived)

This blog, part of the FT's health series, is a forum for readers interested in the science, policy, management, technology, business and delivery of healthcare.

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog:

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow