Monday, June 18, 2018

Okay, Sidd: Now get back to work. Please.

Linda and cousin Elsie, on a good Borrego flower year

Remember Siddhartha Mukherjee?  Of course you do; I have written about him many times, and you read all my stuff, of course.  Well, Dr.  Mukherjee is on the Columbia University faculty.   His research area is cancer; his hobby appears to be creative writing.  He has written several highly acclaimed books:  The Emperor of All Maladies, which I rated A+ #1 you-gotta-read-it

as well as the distinctly inferior but still worthwhile The Gene, an intimate history. 

I gave Sidd’s second book a solid B for content an A for style - but an A+ as a sleep aide.

Mukherjee also has written a quite a few magazine essays, most  of which are useful.  One of my favorites deals with  epigenetics:

Well, my research team of Joanne and Dick Ingwall has alerted me to yet another Mukherjee effort, published by the NYTimes.  The title is The Search for Cancer Treatment Beyond Mutant-Hunting. 
Here it is:

I can’t seem to extract much that is useful from this essay.  It seems to be telling us that there is more to targeted cancer therapy than simply matching the disease to the relevant set of mutations, then applying the appropriate drug.  Well, Gee, who would have thought of that?  I guess in the last page or so Mukherjee is hinting at what we should be doing, but after several attempts I have still to recognize anything resembling a concrete plan.  Maybe I’m just too stupid, but I don’t think so.  I think that Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee simply likes to write.

God damn it Sidd, get back into the lab and cure cancer!  Afterwards, you can write the Great American Literary Masterpiece. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018


FINNEGAN: Junior partner in famous Weise Brothers Marine Biology lab

Well, bloody hell!  I have run on a U Tube video, a whopping 3.5 minutes in length, that gives you a painless elementary school rendition of something you already should know: how immunotherapy works.  Abbreviated and non-technical as it is, nevertheless it is worth viewing.  Trouble is, I can’t persuade my computer to let me give you an address that will actually work.  So – Google “Immunotherapy: how the immune system fights cancer”.    It is an NCI video.  Also, if you fool around with the NCI web site you can learn lots more about immunotherapy.  Do it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

HOW (with a little luck) TO AVOID CANCER

Linda and Murphy
He could be a nasty big brute, but he loved Linda.
Who wouldn't?

You already know this stuff, but it won’t hurt to watch this short video.

Well, hell, I can’t get the video to play.  Maybe you will have better luck.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


One of my favorite pictures

Lord, this genetics stuff is interesting!  As I have said several times, if I had it to do over I would spend my life doing cancer-related biomedical research.  As part of that profession I would also become a whiz-bang computer jock – and, with those talents I would naturally start my own biotech business and become as rich as Bill Gates!  Oh, well – Bill never got to camp out in a windstorm in Patagonia – and get paid for it.

That piece of nonsense is meant to introduce an article by Dr. Francis Collins, whom I have discussed before.  Dr. Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and former director of the “official” program to sequence the human genome.  Apparently he keeps his hands wet doing things in the laboratory, as well as running a multi-billion dollar federal agency – and still has time to post fascinating blogs on stuff NIH is doing.

 The particular blog referenced below concerns the genetic reason we humans are smarter than monkeys. Briefly, it has to do with the duplication, in humans, of a gene called NOTCH2 , which we share with other primates.  We carry multiple copies – which makes us smart.  However, it also makes us susceptible to an array of nasty imperfections, ranging from ADHD syndrome to microcephaly.

 It appears that here is no such thing as a perfectly white shirt; they all have a tiny stain somewhere.

So monkeys may not be as smart as we are, but maybe they are happier.  You think?

So, anyway, Francis Collins is a remarkable human being.  He is an accomplished, highly respected scientist – and  a practicing Christian.  He has written a book, The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief, which I am reading.  (You can get it through Abebooks for $3.57, with free shipping.)  I have spent my entire life trying not to think about God; I knew I should, but it seemed too hard and I was too busy.  Now, however, I am 85, and not busy.  Maybe it is time to bite the bullet.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Biodegradable silica?

Ever wonder where cancer researchers get samples to experiment on?  Well, me neither, but maybe I should have.  It appears that they grow them on mice, but that takes time (like, weeks), and mice cost significant money (like, dozens of bucks per).  Now some smart people in Japan, France, and Saudi Arabia (!) have shown that ovarian tumors can be grown on embryonic chickens (e.g., eggs) quickly, and at a fraction the cost. Furthermore, they have experimented with killing the tumors using “biodegradable silica nanoparticles”.  This seems to work, but leaves me scratching my head: how in heck can something made of silica (think, sand) be biodegradable?

Maybe Saudi Arabia is the source of the sand.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A Cure Within

Linda and Laura Hansen

It is a dreary day here in Bellingham; the first genuinely rainy day in over a month.  I should seize the occasion to get this over with.

“This” is a review of a new cancer book, A Cure Within: Scientists unleashing the immune system to kill cancer.  The author is Neil Canavan, who is described as “a freelance journalist specializing in science and medicine”.  He is currently “scientific adviser” to something called the Trout Group, which describes itself as “ the leading global investor relations and strategic advisory firm servicing the life sciences industry  Whatever: Neil has an M.S. degree in molecular biology, which means he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, so I had better tread lightly.  However…..

I am approaching the end of Neil’s book, for the second time.  At first reading, I hated it.  In fact, I hated it so much that I undertook a second reading expressly to select evidence to damn it to perdition.  Then a funny thing happened; on a second go I began, grudgingly, to like it!  No way I tackle it a third time; I might find myself applying for membership in Neil’s fan club!

So, what’s good and what’s bad?  Well – I hate the guy’s style, for one thing.  He is capable of telling us that “Viruses are really, really small” at one point, then toss a phrase like “… validated target proteins with glial cell-derived neutrotrophic factor or tyrosine hydroxylase”… at you a few pages later.  Also, to make his book a bit more user friendly, I suppose, he broke it up into bite-sized sections, each with its own little title.  One such is, I kid you not – “Bite Me”.  Another is “Blessed are the Cheeseheads”.  Most are serious and even useful, but a few definitely are not..

Maybe the problem is that I read the wrong book.  The book I was looking for would have explained immunotherapy in a straightforward manner that even someone without an M.S. in molecular biology could assimilate; What Neil did – to enhance reader appeal? – was to tell the story through mini-biographies of selected scientists involved in the evolution of IO (immuno-oncology), twenty five in all. 
The life stories of some of these folks are interesting, but Neil struggles to make them even more so, to little effect..  For instance: he is capable of asking one august senior scientist  (which do you like better) the Beetles, the  Rolling Stones, or the Grateful Dead?  Now, if he’d asked Willie Nelson Johnny Cash, or Patsy Cline I might have forgiven him.

So, anyway, the saga of IO is traced in this book, but in a choppy, capriciously segmented way that I find disappointing.  There is some good stuff here, but you have to dig for it.  My advice: wait a few months, and then buy a like-new copy from Abe books, for $3.57, with free shipping.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018



The Joyce family, about 1950
Roy (center) died of brain cancer a few years later

As cancers go, glioblastoma is a particularly nasty brute.  As you almost certainly know, glioblastoma is a type of brain cancer, the most common type, and possibly the most deadly.  Senator John McCain, by far my favorite politician and a true public servant, has glioblastoma - according to some particularly despicable blob of sputum working for the Trump administration, he is dying from it.  Most people die from glioblastoma in less than two years (although the husband of a good family friend, - she is without doubt an ornament to our community - lived for 18 years after diagnosis.)  The husband of Linda’s Maid of Honor at our wedding had glioblastoma, and died from it shortly thereafter.  A valuable and esteemed colleague of mine in the geology department succumbed to glioblastoma.  It probably was responsible for the death of Linda’s father when she was a little child.

You know, when I think about it, glioblastoma is right up there near the top of things about this world that I hate.  In fact, it comes in second.  Right after ovarian cancer.

Well, if you read these blogs at all, you will be aware that immunotherapy is the modern great  hope of oncology.  Checkpoint inhibitors, CAR-T, and other  procedures of the kind give promise of cures to come, although it would be well to remember that, at present, only a fraction of patients respond to any particular IO (Immuno-oncology) treatment – and nobody as yet knows why.

Melanoma and blood cancers are the poster children of IO.  Solid tumors, and especially ovarian cancer, are within its sights.  But glioblastoma?  Not so much.

But there is hope.

A large part of the problem is the brain-blood barrier.  This is a dense layer of cells that has the responsibility to make sure that bad stuff circulating in the blood doesn’t affect the brain.  Another problem is that the immune system doesn’t seem to work the same in the brain as elsewhere; they are working on that conundrum   Anyway, to date all clinical trials testing the effectiveness of IO procedures in cases of glioblastoma have failed, but some have left interesting glimmers of hope.  The work goes on.

If you read the article referenced below – it is long, but interesting – you will need to know what is meant by dendritic cells (DC).  DC are created in the bone marrow, are shaped like very little trees, and serve as the gate-keepers of the immune system; they tell T cells, B cells, etc. what to hunt down and kill.  There are lots of DCs in skin, mucous, and similar places.  They are very important; I first heard about them only weeks ago!

For fun, Google “dendritic cells”, click on British Society if Immunology – and marvel at the barrage of obscure medical terms that leap at you off the page!

And, an impertinent  question:  how do they come up with such bazaar names for drugs?