Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Everything Scientific Vol. II

Here’s this month’s second installment of “Everything scientific”, a breakdown of some of the most significant scientific findings in research journals over the past couple of weeks, in a nutshell (The archives are here). Enjoy science, while I take a blogging break till Monday.


Zoning in:

Every big pharmaceutical company has now invested heavily in monoclonal antibody research (if you invest in pharma, take a look at some of the companies with successful MAB drugs). But monoclonal antibodies are lousy as drugs in many ways. They are biological molecules, and cannot be chemically synthesized. Biological production is prone to too many variables. They are difficult to store and maintain, not to mention administer. They sometimes trigger horrible immune reactions. But they have one huge advantage. They are super-specific. They zone in and bind to only their specific target within the body, and nothing else. So, they’re perfect to use to target an affected region ALONE (think cancer, for a start). So, the industry is growing rapidly, and is at about $30 billion right now. But, evidence is beginning to mount that there can be serious “collateral damage”, with titration effects and unbalancing immune surveillance, so the thrust now is to understand these areas better. Two excellent editorials take a look at the promise and pitfalls of these drugs.

Speaking of “biotech”, it’s the current buzzword in India. But the walk is still not close to matching the talk. Most degree and diploma holders in “biotechnology” in India have very poor lab skills. There are major changes happening in the patent law universe, and now process patents will be made obsolete. Instruments are extremely hard to find in India (none are made there). Still, some companies are starting to boom, and there are spots of progress. But don’t expect a repeat of the IT boom, and throw your money on Indian biotech yet.

Up in smoke:

Nicotine is the addictive agent in cigarettes, and it’s what makes the smoker feel happy and relaxed. Even when smokers want to quit, the addiction (and withdrawal cravings) often draws them back. How ever, some of the most carcinogenic and harmful agents in cigarettes are not nicotine, but are in the cigarette tar. The nicotine patch works, but often there is a lingering craving to light up. There is some hope for smokers now. The craving is usually due to a decrease in nicotine in the body (since it is metabolized). So, researchers are now trying to inhibit the enzyme (protein) that metabolizes it (a cytochrome P450). The idea is to inhibit the enzyme, and therefore keep levels of nicotine higher in the system for a longer duration of time. This would in turn reduce the craving for a smoke, and reduce the number of cigarettes consumed. This might ease the way to an eventual nicotine free lifestyle. Read more about it here.

(image from here)

When mice are sheepish:

Stem cells are constantly in the news, and stem-cell research is a bit of a hot potato in the States now. Embryonic stem cells are the most desirable because they are extremely versatile, and can develop in to any kind of cell necessary (with the appropriate stimuli). One area of research is to study if embryonic stem cells can repair damaged hearts. But human embryonic stem cells run in to a gamut of regulations (and religious/ethical issues). Bone marrow stem cells (easily available) do not have the same properties and versatility as embryonic stem cells. So scientists are struggling for solutions. In some fascinating research however, some progress has been made. Scientists have managed to use mouse embryonic stem cells to heal damaged sheep hearts. Many problems yet, but the test now will be if primate stem cells can be used to heal human hearts, and thus circumvent many ethical issues.

Warm earth, more hurricanes?

Global warming research also runs into controversy (with various groups opposing it, though it’s going to happen whether they oppose it or not). Still, the link between global warming and hurricanes was not yet strong. But now, there has been a massive 80% increase in the abundance of powerful tropical storms in the past 35 years. During this time, tropical oceans have warmed up due to greenhouse gases. The link is growing stronger, and this editorial points it out. Tropical storms “draw their energy upward from warm ocean water to drive their winds before expelling waste heat to the upper atmosphere.” The full research article is here. Good science always points out the still indeterminable, and I will take the trouble of quoting the last paragraph of the paper in full to illustrate that point:
“This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.” (Science, 309, Issue 5742, 1844-1846)

Skeletons in the desert:

As far as human and primate fossils go, Central Africa has been a rich source for them. But, for dinosaur and early mammal fossils, Mongolia’s Gobi desert is providing more skeletons than most closets can handle. Many unknown species have now been discovered. This is also an excellent example of good science reporting in the New York Times, one of the few newspapers with good science coverage.

(Image from here)

Doomsday, not quite?

Space still remains the final frontier. Apparently, about 3.9 billion years ago (yup, puts in perspective our own relative insignificance w.r.t. the universe), the inner planets (including earth) were battered by something. It seems that most of the more recent impacts are due to small objects, which makes sense, since forces nudging asteroids out of the asteroid belt today (like the Yarkovsky effect) favor smaller objects. But this does not explain the ancient bombardment, which was mostly caused by much larger objects. A recent report argues that asteroids smashed the inner planets due to a major planetary rearrangement of outer, larger planets (i.e. Jupiter or Saturn teaming up, or perhaps Neptune and Uranus formed long after the other planets. But the case remains open. In more amazing space news, using satellites and a global network of telescopes, scientists have spotted the most distant explosion thus far. A star died when the universe was in its infancy, and exploded violently (a supernova), causing a gamma-ray burst. Gamma ray bursts are so bright that they are brighter than whole galaxies. Light from this explosion was spotted on the 4th of September. The star exploded when the universe was around 900 million years old. Then it traveled at the speed of light to where we could see it. The universe is now about 13500 million years old, and boy, that light has taken a long time to get here.

“A disease of white people”

Finally, in the September issue of Physics Today, there is an excellent article about Einstein and Racism in America. In September 1946, Einstein told some students at Lincoln University that racial segregation was “not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people. I will not remain silent about it.” Much has changed since then, thanks to the civil rights movement. But till date, at any major university, African American scientists are incredibly rare, and though the reasons remain many, many underlying attitudes need to change.


Abi said...

Hi Sunil,

Very nice post. The bio-related stuff is a little too technical, but I found that I could still get something out of this post, thanks to your lucid writing.


gawker said...

The nicotine thingie wont work and this is why : Most smokers I know, and even me too when I smoked, dont smoke because we crave a smoke, we smoke because it's time to smoke. Or because someone else in the vicinity is smoking. Nicotine only comes into the picture when you are trying to quit, you havent smoked for a long time and are feeling the pangs.

As for global warming, the movie "Day after tomorrow" doesnt seem so far fetched now does it? Bush and the forces of darkness wont really take global warming seriously till you give em numbers : which are $200 billion Katrina cost and $5.00 gas cost. Otherwise to the unscientific republican idiots, all global warming meant was more space to live in the Arctic and nice n toasty climates. Nincompoops.

gawker said...

Nice roundup btw, and a great concept.

Anonymous said...

Nice one Sunil! But as Abi said, me too not follow the bio! About the global warming thingie, I had read sometime ago that glaciers such as Gangotri are rapidly melting, and as a result, water levels will rise in rivers in India, and then fall, eventually drying them up. That article (cannot find it now) said that the rivers may dry up in a hundred years from now.

Anonymous said...


Nice post. I would tend to disagree a bit on the last point about white people. Indians as "colored" people are found in the top echelons of all science universities and research institutes. A lot of the best doctors in the US are those of color.

Thus the segregation and racial issues are happening at the lower level. I feel it has more to do with opportunities or lack thereof, for African Americans, at the school and high school level which does not provide them with the foundation to break into the college and university level.

Minal said...

Looking forward to more volumes of your "Everything Scientific"

Anonymous said...

I would just like to say that your science about Global Warming is all wrong.

Global warming is not happening, it is only a false propaganda floated by some leftist vested interests.

Just to give you an example, a volcano may release more CO2 in the air than a million automobiles in a year. So to blame human factors for global warming is an outright act of anti-human agenda.

It is only the leftist who are anti-industrialization who are behind this muck racking on Global Warming.

Please check your facts....

Iyer the Great said...

Great work Sunil!! I really like the idea of Everything Scientific.

AV, I am part of the Natural Gas Systems group at a university - a group aimed at developing systems applications for the NG industry, a group rooting for NG based gas plants - and we recognize the implications of Global Warming. Science and politics do not make good bedfellows.


gawker said...

av before you go off on an ideological tangent, please read through Sunil's article where all he claims is that global warming might beleading to increased hurricane intensity. He does not claim that it's being caused by humans or fossil fuels.

But regardless of whether Sunil implies it or not, I will say this. Volcanoes have existed through all time, but we have seen the earth's temperature rise only since the late 19th century, a time which corresponded with the industrial revolution and the usage of fossil fuels.

Just pooh poohing global warming because of your ideological tilt is as silly as worshipping a stone deity because you believe in a particular religion.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

sunil - very interesting post! really enjoyed it

umm and av who exactly is behind the leftist vested interests who have an anti human agenda? aliens?

Sunil said...

thank you all for your comments. Just stopped by briefly to see what was going on :-)

AV....please DO see the sources cited. This post is called everything scientific for a reason. IT does NOT quote newspaper reports, other bloggers or random opinions. It finds SCIENTIFIC articles (this was from the journal Science, one of the world's premier science journals), and was a scientific paper, not an op-ed without references. There are about 40 references cited. Read all of them.

This is science. IT has nothing to do with politics. Politics can stay where it should be....far away from science. Science has only one find out the facts, and lay it out. Not create propaganda. That is for politics.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Interesting post.
I have a comment about science and politics. Although we hope they are separate, they seldom are. Scientists get their funding from the federal government in general and so they see it in their interest to hype the "gloom and doom."

I can remember reading a host of "gloom and doom" type stories from the 70's and 80's. The only one that actually happened much like the scare mongers predicted was the AIDS epidemic. But others like the fear that we would run out of oil by 2000 and such things never happened (of course, if you wait long enough, some prediction will eventually happen).

Global warming may in fact be happening, but the rate of change is open to reasonable debate. The problem is that many of the people who want to study this problem are likely to shade the facts towards the negative because they'll get more funding that way. It is an issue.

The graph looks somewhat suspicious. I'm curious what the level of type 4 hurricanes was like in the 1960's.

Sunil said...

May be Michael......but the authors were very careful to state their caveats. I'm no expert in atmospheric sciences, but i had that paper whetted by a friend of mine, who studies tropical storms. And this paper cites a number of equally good references as well.

I know economists love to trash any suggestion of global climate change, but you've been a researcher yourself........and like most, have taken pride in careful research, and careful interpretations of data. So, it might be a little presumptous to suggest that the data here was massaged....:-)

Sunil said...

A more detailed response to comments:

Abi, Vishnu...I will further simplify some of the more biological posts in the future :-) much as i wish its success....Kyoto seems to be a failure :-( might be right about smoking...but anything to help. As far as global warming goes....i don't think we can blame everything yet to warming...and too many different things seem to contribute to it....but, it's slowly having an effect for sure.

Arzan...yes, there are many reasons. But blacks and hispanics continue to remain very underrepresented. The "colored" folks succeeding seem to be only immigrants, who come from different education systems, and have a strong desire to succeed in a foreigh land.

Minal, Shoe fiend, thanks. Rahul....NG is by far a better fuel.....lets see how far that effort goes.

Av......still wondering who the leftists are, whom you're talking about. They have nothing to do with this post, or the references cited (you can read the actual science there, not statements).

Riot said...

I am glad that you gave a fitting reply to that AV person :)

Anonymous said...

I am not sure if it is because of global warming, but have been noting that for a few years, the climate of Madras is getting cooler in winter and hotter (God help!) in summer. In addition, the peak summer is shifting to June/July from May (when comes the Agni Nakshatram).

I also remember reading a few years back about the El Nino Effect. Wonder if this is related to global warming as well...

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. Thanks.

On the hurricane front, I've read that this goes in cycles - we had a "quiet" period from the late 60's (or maybe it was the 70's) to the early 90's. Now is the start of an active period.

The link to global warming is very hard to prove to sceptics - anything you say, there will always be evidence to the contrary. That's the nature of the game when it comes to weather, and I guess the trend hasn't solidified enough to be conclusive enough, although it certainly points in that direction.

pippala leaf said...

Excellent post Sunil. Looking forward more and more posts like this from you.

Sunil said...

Srikanth......i'm no expert on global i dont know. But i do know that madras is a gawdawfulplace with lots of summer, and a hot winter, and am glad my college days there are over.

Karthik...yes, you're right. But the evidence just seems to constantly mount. Even with the hurricane cycles......the present cycle (ref. paper) has had more level 3 and above hurricanes than earlier. And hurricanes in the gulf coast are directly formed due to the temperature of the oceans...

Madhu...thanks. There'll be one of these once every fortnight.

Anonymous said...

More on GW and hurricanes from Kerry Emanuel at

from Q&A:
1.) Q: Is global warming causing more hurricanes?

A: No. The global, annual frequency of tropical cyclones (the generic, meteorological term for the storm that is called a tropical storm or hurricane in the Atlantic region) is about 90, plus or minus 10. There is no indication whatsoever of a long-term trend in this number.