Monthly Archives: September 2009

Clive Cookson

Today the world’s Aids vaccine researchers are celebrating the first partial success of a clinical trial, after more than 20 years of frustration and failure. But we must not get carried away with the results of the RV144 trial in Thailand.

The positive results were fairly modest. Although the $105m trial was ambitious in scale, with 16,400 healthy volunteers taking part, the number infected with HIV over the three year period was relatively small: 51 among those who received active vaccine and 74 among those receiving placebo shots.

That amounts to a 31 per cent reduction in infection – statistically significant, in the sense that it is unlikely to have occurred by chance, but not impressive compared to the 70-80 per cent protection provided by most licensed vaccines for other diseases.

The immediate priority is to understand how the two components of the Thai vaccine are working together. Each had failed in smaller clinical trials on its own.

The first component, called Alvac HIV, is a canarypox virus genetically engineered to include three HIV genes; it is designed to stimulate human immune cells to fight HIV. The second, called AidsVax, contains a protein from the surface of HIV; its purpose is to stimulate antibody production.

A big puzzle in the Thai trial results, which the researchers will need to solve, is why the combined vaccine had no effect on the amount of HIV in the blood of volunteers who did become infected. Normally an effective vaccine reduces this “viral load”.

The partial success in Thailand does not mean that other approaches to an HIV vaccine should be abandoned. Even after more than 20 years of failure, there are several novel HIV vaccines under development in the world’s laboratories – based for example on studying those rare individuals who do not develop Aids symptoms despite long-term HIV infection – which will be ready soon for clinical trials. They deserve a chance.

Clive Cookson

An imaginative campaign to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers is launched today.

More than 60 well-known figures from the worlds of entertainment, sport, science and business have come up with “if only” ideas – one discovery or invention they wish existed.

They range from the selfish (Gary Lineker, former England footballer, wanted “A time machine so I could go back and play one extra game for England to become England’s all time highest ever scorer”) to the altruistic.

Many people chose solutions to climate change and the energy crisis. My favourite wish comes from Colin Blakemore, Oxford neuroscientist and former head of the Medical Research Council: “If only we had an attractive solution to global warming and the energy crisis. What about synthetic Wisteria, capable of performing artificial photosynthesis, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting sunlight to electricity, with its roots connected to the National Grid?”

Blakemore’s “if only” is one of several illustrated by the organisers of the National Engineering Competition. They’ll be accepting entries from 11-18 year olds before 30 October. Finals take place at the Big Bang Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair in Manchester in March.

If you have children at secondary school in the UK, encourage them to have a go…

Clive Cookson

When I started out in science journalism there were three giants of the trade practising on UK national newpapers: Pearce Wright on The Times, Anthony (Phil) Tucker on The Guardian and David Fishlock, my predecessor, on the FT.

David, the last survivor of the trio, died suddenly on Friday at the age 77. He was the FT’s science editor from 1967 to 1991, bridging the worlds of research and business with great skill.

While he covered myriad subjects for the paper – and was adept at identifying new fields that would later lead to important industries – David was known particularly for three things.

The first was his coverage of the early biotechnology companies emerging in the US and UK in the 1970s and early 80s. This culminated in a much-praised book The Business of Biotechnology published by the FT in 1982.

Second was David’s feel for the management of industrial research and development. On retiring from the FT, he founded and wrote a newsletter R&D Efficiency, which explored strategies through interviews with decision-makers responsible for large R&D budgets. He was also a stalwart supporter of the R&D Society.

But David’s greatest professional passion was for nuclear power. He lost no opportunity for write about advances in nuclear science and technology in the FT – though the paper also benefited from his contacts and expertise when things went wrong, as for example during the 1986 Chernobyl crisis.

His only son, Bill, tells me that after retirement David was an active member of  SONE, a group of nuclear supporters in which Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s ex-press secretary was also involved. He also enjoyed the company of a less formal grouping of veteran nuclear industry watchers, the Windscale Fire Club, who regularly deliberated in a London wine bar.

David was a large and convivial man, loving food, drink and conversation. And, despite heart disease and dire medical warnings, he continued to enjoy himself to the end.

But as FT science editor, he kept himself apart from his fellow science correspondents. He knew the FT needed a different type of science coverage to the other newspapers and would never follow Pearce Wright, Phil Tucker and the rest. For instance he did not attend the great ritual gathering of science journalists – the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Festival) – and covered the BA only from the papers available in advance. When I arrived at the FT as technology editor, he was delighted for me to go and pick up stories at the conference.

David was the right science editor at the right time for the FT. My condolences go to his widow Mary, whom he married 50 years ago, and to Bill.

Clive Cookson

For anyone interested in science communications, there was only one place to be in London last night: the Royal Institution for the eagerly anticipated debate between Lord Paul Drayson, the science minister, and Dr Ben Goldacre, the medical writer and scourge of ‘Bad Science’.

The build-up started at the World Conference of Science Journalists in July, where Drayson praised science journalism and Goldacre condemned it, and continued with a heated Twitter discussion between them. All 400 tickets in the RI’s historic lecture theatre were booked within 90 minutes of the debate being announced.

The adversaries – and the way Simon Mayo, BBC radio presenter and the evening ‘s chairman treated them – made a contrasting pair. The science minister in his sharp suit and tie, referred to with surprising respect by Mayo as “Lord Drayson” until late in the debated when he slipped into “Paul”. And Goldacre in scruffy shoes, trousers and open-necked shirt, called “Ben” throughout.

The debate itself was lively, fun and well balanced. In the end I thought Drayson had the better of the argument.

I had worried beforehand that Goldacre, a free spirit, might run rings round Drayson, constrained by his ministerial position. In the event that only happened once, when someone asked about the use of libel laws to stifle science writing (in the context of the British Chiropractic Association’s legal action against Simon Singh); after Drayson gave a waffly ministerial reply, Goldacre pounced with “I hope I can speak like that when I’m grown up.”

Drayson maintained that the quality of science journalism has improved over the past few years – comparing the reporting of BSE, the MMR vaccine scare and GM crops with the better recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider, hybrid embryos and swine flu.

The debate focused mainly on the tabloids’ coverage of medical science. Drayson unashamedly advocated “sensationalism” as a way of grabbing readers’ attention and drawing them into the story. He praised The Sun, for example, for condensing a study of a sexually transmitted cancer-causing virus into a front page splash under the headline “Sex Kills”.

When Mayo produced yesterday’s Daily Express, with a front page story headed “Two-a-Day Pill Stops Cancer”, Drayson’s endorsement of its accuracy was supported by someone in the audience from Breakthrough Breast Cancer, one of the charities funding the research.

Goldacre refused to concede any improvement in the mass media’s science treatment, and sounded elitist when he called on several occasions for more coverage to stimulate “nerds”.

Both men said things that made me cringe. Drayson went far too far when he welcomed the publicity given to absurd claims a year ago that CERN’s LHC might trigger the end of the world (on the grounds that it stimulated interest in high energy physics). And Goldacre was plain wrong with his statement that “Science journalists are very marginal figures in the coverage of science in British newspapers.”

But on the whole it was a civilised and interesting evening. You can form your own opinion by listening to a recording on the Times Higher Education website.

Clive Cookson

Lost in the small print of José Manuel Barroso’s wide-ranging address to the European Parliament yesterday was an important commitment to science.

Barroso, who was today re-elected to a second term as European Commission president with a strong majority, promised to set up a chief scientific adviser for the next commission.

He or she will have “the power to deliver proactive, scientific advice throughout all stages of policy development and delivery. This will reflect the central importance I attach to research and innovation,” Barroso said.

The commitment follows a campaign by John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientist, and other research advocates, for the EU to have a scientific adviser who could act across the commission’s various directorates-general. (And by the way, Mr Barroso, how about simplifying nomenclature in the new commission, so that directorates-general become simply directorates?)

Janez Potočnik has been an excellent research commissioner over the past five years but he does not have the over-arching responsibility of the proposed European chief scientist, who would deliver advice across the board, on issues from health to energy and climate change.

The job must go to someone who is both a first-rate scientist and an excellent communicator. People who would fit the bill (though I have no idea whether they would be interested in the post) include: Frank Gannon, molecular biologist and head of Science Foundation Ireland; David King, chemist and former UK chief scientist; Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, head of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute; and Fotis Kafatos, the Greek biologist who chairs the European Research Council.

Clive Cookson

From tomorrow (Tuesday, September 15) the public will be able to view the gigantic “cocoon”, eight stories high and 65 metres long, which houses the new £78m Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum.

The cocoon

The cocoon

The spectacular cocoon, made of polished plaster over sprayed concrete, sits inside a glass atrium on the museum’s western site, next to the original 1881 Alfred Waterhouse terracotta building. It was opened this afternoon by David Attenborough and Prince William (the latter’s first official museum opening).

Danish architects C.F. Møller designed the centre to combine public displays, specimen collections and working scientific laboratories. Research staff will be on hand to discuss their work with visitors.

“Many people love the museum for its iconic Victorian building,” says Neil Greenwood, programme director. “We wanted to challenge this traditional perception and highlight the work of our scientists and the importance of our collections.”

His colleague Paul Bowers says an important aim is to “counteract the public image of museum science as being done by older white men working on their own.”

Funding for the extension came from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Wellcome Trust, among other organisations.

I loved the place, on my press preview, and strongly recommend a visit.

Clive Cookson

A transatlantic report on nanotechnology has called for a mandatory reporting system for nano-products across the US and European Union.

An international register for commercial materials based on nanotechnology is a key recommendation of the report, launched this week at a conference at Chatham House, London.

“Voluntary reporting initiatives in the UK and US have failed to fill existing knowledge gaps on the commercial use of nanomaterials,” said Robert Falkner of the London School of Economics, the project coordinator. A market register would create transparency about the use of nanomaterials in consumer products, he added.

The report is a joint effort by the LSE and Chatham House in London and the Environmental Law Institute and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson international Centre in Washington DC.

Other recommendations include stronger international efforts to create the scientific foundations for assessing the potential risks of nanotechnology, and significantly increased funding for research into its environmental, health and safety effects.

Nanotechnology means manipulating things with dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers (billionths of a meter). On this scale, materials acquire new physical and chemical properties, which bring many benefits but also potential dangers.

Although the risks are not well known, the greatest fear is probably about the effect of nanomaterials on the lungs.

Applications range from computing to medicines, food to energy storage, sports equipment to sunscreens. The Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies maintains an inventory of consumer goods containing nanomaterials, which lists more than 1,000 products on the market in 24 countries. They contain materials such as nanoscale silver, carbon, titanium, silicon, zinc and gold.

“Despite significant differences between the US and EU regulatory regimes, taking the steps we recommend will not only make it easier to address the potential risks of nanomaterials but also will increase the likelihood that the US and EU will ultimately implement similar risk management approaches,” said Linda Breggin of the Environmental Law Institute.

Clive Cookson

More promising cancer research has been revealed on the last day of the British Science Festival in Guildford.

This time it’s a possible treatment for cachexia, the debilitating weight loss and muscle wasting that afflicts about half of all cancer patients. It is particularly severe in gastro-intestinal and lung cancer, and is responsible for an estimated 25 per cent of cancer mortality. No specific treatments for cachexia are available.

Michael Tisdale and colleagues at Aston University in Birmingham have discovered a molecule produced by tumours, called proteolysis inducing factor or PIF for short, which triggers muscle loss.

PIF has a “receptor” on the surface of muscle cells, which can be blocked with an antibody. That stops the molecule getting into the muscles and prevents cachexia.

The project is still at an early stage. Lab tests have shown that antibodies block the action of PIF linked in tissue culture. The researchers are now looking for the best humanised antibody, which might be ready to start clinical trials within three years.

The Aston team has licensed the treatment for development by Halsa Pharmaceuticals, based in Texas. “We went round several British biotech companies but they were not interested,” said Prof Tisdale.

In fact one British company, Ark Therapeutics, has a cachexia candidate in clinical trials – a more conventional “small molecule” drug called Vitor, developed originally to treat high blood pressure. It counteracts the effects of muscle wasting by stimulating mitchondria (the cell’s microscopic power packs) to produce more energy and reduces the breakdown of muscle proteins.

But if the Aston treatment works – a big if for an approach that has not even for tested in animals let alone people – it will be a more direct attack on the underlying cause of cachexia.

Oncologists would welcome any specific cachexia treatment, which could prolong and improve the lives of millions of cancer patients.

Clive Cookson

An interesting clinical trial is under way at Leicester and Loughborough universities, to see whether chemotherapy can be tailored more closely to the needs of the individual patient.

Barry Sharp of Loughborough, the project leader, outlined the move towards “personalised chemotherapy” at the British Science Festival in Guildford.

Compounds based on platinum (cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin) are used in about 65 per cent of chemotherapy. All patients receive a standardised treatment regime based on their body size and kidney function, although response to the drugs varies substantially.

The aim is to develop a test that clinicians can use before and after dosing, to personalise the regime to maximise benefit and minimise side effects.

Thirty people are taking part in the pilot trial. Researchers take 20ml blood samples and use mass spectroscopy to quantify how much of the administered drug has bound to the target DNA.

They hope to see how the drug dose is distributed through the cells and thereby predict both efficacy and side effects.

If it turns out that test results correlate well with clinical data, then clinicians could for the first time make decisions about dosing on the basis of numerical data from an objective test.

As Dr Sharp says, the benefits to patients in terms of improving effectiveness and reducing harm from platinum chemotherapy are potentially huge.

But at least five years more work will be needed before clear clinical guidelines emerge.

Clive Cookson

British scientists are beginning work on a selective pesticide that would kill aphids while sparing bees and other benign insects. 

The project at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, one of the UK’s largest agricultural science centres, follows the recent completion of an international effort to decode the entire genetic sequence of the aphid or greenfly.

Professor Lin Field of Rothamsted told the British Science Festival in Guildford yesterday that new insecticides were needed desperately – and not just for gardeners to spray greenfly infestations on their roses.

“Aphids are the most important insect crop pests in Europe,” she said. Almost every vegetable and fruit is vulnerable to aphids, which spread plant viruses as they suck sap.

Sustained attack with pesticides over the past 50 years has led to the evolution of chemical-resistant aphids. Only one class of insecticides still works reasonably effectively against aphids, the neonicotinoids – which are very toxic to honeybees and have been blamed for the recent collapse of bee numbers in some parts of the world.

Knowing the whole DNA sequence of the aphid (500m chemical ‘letters’ altogether) is opening new avenues of attack, said Prof Field, who is also President of the Royal Entomological Society.

Rothamsted scientists are concentrating on the aphid’s “sodium channel” which is vital for nerve function. They have identified the gene responsible for the sodium channel and discovered the mutations that cause resistance to pesticides.

The honeybee genome has also been decoded, Prof Field added. “There is now the prospect of looking at the differences in sodium channels between aphids and honeybees and thinking of how a compound might be designed to bind to the aphid protein and not that of the bee, thus creating selective insecticides.”

Several years of research and development will be needed, in collaboration with the agrochemical industry, before farmers and horticulturalists can attack aphids with a new generation of selective pesticides. These might then move quickly into garden centres.

A potentially more controversial way of defending crops against aphids is also under development at Rothamsted. It uses the “alarm pheromone”, a biochemical warning that the insects give when attacked by predators such as ladybirds.  

“We have transferred the gene for the aphid alarm pheromone into a plant,” said Prof Field. The idea is to put the insects off feeding on crops that give an alarm signal.

“We’ve got funds for a field trial but it’s a GM technology and that’s not very popular,” she said.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.