31 May 2011

cell phones --> cancer?

In case your mother hasn't forwarded it to you, or your Facebook feed hasn't been blowing up with links to articles like this, I thought I'd post it here. The summary: a panel of 31 scientists from 14 countries have concluded that cell phone use may be linked to cancer. First off, getting 31 scientists to come to a definitive conclusion about anything is sometimes difficult, so in a sense, this vague statement is not surprising. But as a scientist, this conclusion doesn't mean much (a huge number of environmental factors "may" be linked to cancer). While I frankly have not seen the raw data or published study, from what I've seen in the media, no odds ratios or relative risks have been reported. Sure there was an increased risk of gliomas in heavy cell phone users (original article), but what was the sample size? Where there confounding factors? Perhaps I have been reading too many epidemiological studies recently, but I believe these reports have had a greater PR impact than any scientific impact. Even the W.H.O has only classified cellphones as Category 2B (possibly carcinogenic, along with...coffee). My take: Until we start seeing more functional validation studies...calm down people. And journalists, please report your data responsibly.

WHO/IARC Press Release
Cellphone Radiation May Cause Cancer, Advisory Panel Says
by Tara Parker-Pope and Felicity Barringer

16 May 2011

Nanotech + Sequencing

With Illumina's recently released TruSeq v3 Cluster kits producing up to 600 Gb of data per run (!), there's no doubt that we are getting more information and coverage for our hard-earned research dollars. While the quality and depth of sequence is increasing, this doesn't really matter to clinicians. Noblegen Biosciences, a Massachusetts startup is trying to change that. While no industrial-scale prototype has been developed, the company, funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute, is building on nanopore-genome sequencing technology. With a goal of being able to accurately call 1000 bases per second (theoretically scaled up to cover an entire human genome 30x in 15 minutes!), the company aims to bring fast and cheap sequencing to the clinic. No word on technology specifics, or how they plan to analyze all this data in a speed/manner that is reflective of the quick sequencing time. It will also be interesting to see how their technology compares to that of Oxford Nanopore, which has not released any commercial product. While it is still early days, I'll be keeping an eye out for future developments.
MIT Technology Review Article by Katherine Bourzac: Simpler Genome Sequencing

03 May 2011

Where is all that money going?

An online opinion piece by David Bornstein at NYTimes.com is generating some interesting discussion on the gap between academic research and the development of new drugs. While hundreds of thousands of biomedical research papers are being published each year, and millions of dollars are being spent on research (by both government funding agencies and pharmaceutical companies), there were only 21 new drugs approved by the FDA last year. There is clearly a need for more "translational" research, as addressed by Francis Collins' recent push for a federal drug development center. While researchers from all sides are making significant scientific progress, there are some glaring social issues that need to be fixed. Kudos to the author for bringing some of these issues to light. Be sure to stay tuned his follow-up article.