Archive for October, 2014

Symposium in Mainz on controversies in biomedicine

October 26, 2014

Last Friday I attended a symposium on controversies in biomedicine at the Academy of Science and Literature in Mainz. There were a number of talks and a round table discussion at the end. The event itself was not the scene of much controversy. It seems that most of the people attending had a positive attitude to biomedical research. At least there was not much sign of the contrary in the questions after the talks. I thought that an event like this might have attracted more participants with a critical view of the subject but that does not seem to have been the case. The one vein of controversial discussion was between some journalists who had been invited for the round table (from Bavarian TV, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) and the majority of the participants who were presumably scientific researchers in one form or another. The journalists expressed the opinion that scientists did not take part actively enough in public debates and the scientists suggested that journalists often sensationalized scientific subjects of public interest.

The first talk, by Christof von Kalle was about gene therapy. This taught me a number of things concerning this subject which I did not previously know much about. One example he discussed was that of X-linked SCID (severe combined immunodeficiency). The first choice of therapy for this fatal condition is a bone marrow transplant but this is dependent on the availability of a suitable donor. In other cases gene therapy was tried. It often cured the SCID but a high proportion of patients later got leukemia. A promoter in the inserted DNA had not only activated the gene it was supposed to but an oncogene as well. My one criticism of the talk is that the speaker packed in much too much information, sometimes flashing slides for just a couple of seconds. The next talk was by Bernhard Fleckenstein on pathogenic viruses. His main theme was biosecurity and biosafety. The first has to do with preventing voluntary misuse (such as bioterrorism) and the second with preventing accidents. I learned that this is still the subject of lively discussion. One amazing story is that there was an attempt to stop a paper written in Holland being published in the US by claiming that it was an export and that therefore an authority in Holland responsible for exports of goods had the right to forbid it. There is no doubt that experimental work on influenza viruses which are both highly virulent and highly infectious could be dangerous. However in my opinion it makes no sense to ban such research or to try to keep the results secret. This is because I think that somebody will do the research anyway, despite bans, and any important results will leak out. I think that the danger is minimized if the research is legal and open rather than illegal and secret. The next talk, by Martin Lohse, was on the necessity of animal experiments. One aspect which came out clearly was the tension between the legislation limiting research on animals and that requiring a certain amount of such research in the form of testing before a new drug can be approved.

Over lunch I had some stimulating conversations with other participants. The first talk after lunch was by Jörg Michaelis on the benefit or otherwise of screening, in particular for cancer. He recounted his own experience in organizing a large study on the use of screening of small children for neuroblastoma, with negative results. He then surveyed what is known about the value of various other types of screening. In particular he stated that screening for skin cancer, as paid for by the German public health service is not justified by any scientific evidence. Nobody in the audience contradicted this. The last talk of the day, by Uwe Sonnewald was about green genetic engineering. Among other things he presented statistics on the huge difference in the level of the use of these techniques in the Americas and in Europe, particularly Germany. If the bar representing Germany had not been a different colour it would have been invisible. The meeting ended with the round table. I just want to mention one point which arose there. In a recent post I mentioned the negative attitude to science and technology, particular in the area of biomedicine, which I notice in Germany. (This was one motivation for me to attend the event I am writing about here, with the idea of collecting arguments in support of science.) Of course this was a recurrent theme in the symposium in one form or another, particularly during the round table. An idea which appeared repeatedly, implicitly or explicitly, during the day was that the troubled relationship of the Germans to this subject could have to do with thinking of the abuses carried out by certain German doctors during the time that the Nazis were in power. This is maybe an obvious point but in the discussion someone (I think it was Christof Niehrs) introduced another idea, one which was new to me. He asked if it was possible that this troubled relationship perhaps goes back much further, namely to the period of romanticism when there was a reaction in Germany against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. I found this symposium very informative and it provided me with a lot of material which I can use in the future in discussions on this type of subject.

Thoughts on Helen Keller

October 19, 2014

I must have seen something about Helen Keller on TV when I was a child. I do not exactly remember what it was and when her name recently came into my mind I could not remember what the story was. I just knew that she had an unusual handicap. Wikipedia confirmed my vague memory that she was deaf and blind. I saw that her autobiography is available online and I started to read it. I got hooked and having been reading a bit each evening I have now finished it. Actually the text is not just the autobiography itself but also has other parts such as some of her letters and text by her teacher Anne Sullivan.

Helen Keller, born in 1880, was left deaf and blind by an illness (it does not seem to be clear what, perhaps meningitis or scarlet fever) at the age of 19 months. Being cut off to such an extent from communication she lost some of the abilities she had already acquired as a small child, although she did invent her own personal sign language. The development was only turned around by the arrival her teacher in 1887. Anne Sullivan was not happy with the way in which people exaggerated when writing about the achievements of Helen and herself. She rightly remarked that what Helen did did not require extra embroidery – the plain truth was remarkable enough. It was claimed that she (Anne) had become Helen’s teacher as a selfless act. She writes that in fact she did so because she needed the money. She had herself been blind for some time before regaining her sight. On the other hand what she did for her pupil was in the end very remarkable. The first route of communication for Helen was through her teacher spelling into her hand. Later on Helen learned to type and read Braille, to write on paper (although in the latter form she could not read what she had written) and to speak (in several languages). She got a college degree despite the special difficulties involved. For instance in mathematics, which was not her favourite subject, there were difficulties for her to be able to understand the examination questions which were presented in a special form of Braille which she was not very familiar with.

I think that the story of Helen Keller can be an inspiration for the majority of us, those who do not have to struggle with the immense difficulties she was confronted with. If we compare then we may complain less of our own problems. Of course she did have one or two advantages. Her family must have been quite well off so as to pay for personal tuition so that she was freed from certain practical difficulties. She had great intellectual gifts which could develop vigorously once a sufficiently good channel of communication to the outside world (and, very importantly, to the world of books) had been established. The prose in her autobiography is of high quality. When she is describing some experience she often describes it as if she had seen and heard everything. This makes a strange impression when you realize that this had to be reconstructed from things her teacher had communicated to her, direct sensations such as smells and vibrations and memories from things she remembered from books. She seems to have had a remarkable talent for integrating all this information. I can only suppose that this integration was done not just for her writing but to create parts of her day to day experience.

The book was published in 1903 and so only contains information about Helen Keller’s life until about the turn of the century. She lived until 1968, was later a prominent public figure and wrote many books. Perhaps in the future accounts of her later life will cross my path.