A Cure For Cancer? Probably Not!

Cancer cells from human connective tissue (click for credit)

I started seeing it on my Facebook feed Tuesday. I started getting messages about it on Wednesday. It’s a news story of great interest to many people, and the headline says it all:


The news outlet that published the story is the Jerusalem Post. After it was published there on Monday, U.S. news outlets picked up the story. I suspect that nearly everyone in the U.S. knows someone who has been afflicted with some form of cancer, so the interest is understandable. The problem is that the story is almost certainly not true.

As far as I know, the Jerusalem Post is a credible news organization. Also, the people who have made the claim (Dan D. Aridor and Dr. Ilan Morad ) are credible people. Nevertheless, the claims are not credible, especially when you investigate them.

Aridor and Morad say that they are using “phage display” technologies to target proteins that are typically produced by cancer cells. This allows them to eliminate cancer cells without affecting healthy ones. This is already an active area of cancer treatment research, so the technique is a valid one. They claim that they have a special variation on the technique that will allow them to offer “a complete cure for cancer” within a year or so. If that sounds too good to be true, it probably is – especially when you see what the claim is based on.

Essentially, they say they have tested their technique on mice, and it works very well. Unfortunately, they have not published their results, so it is hard to know what that really means. They claim they don’t want to spend their time and money on writing up a publication. Instead, they want to concentrate on the research necessary to perfect the technique. That is understandable, and they might also be afraid that others could use their publication to “copy” their technique and beat them to the punch.

So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that they tested their technique on mice, and it was found to completely eliminate specific types of cancer in mice with no discernible side effects. That still doesn’t mean it will work in people! The gap between animal studies and human studies is huge, which is why many treatments that worked incredibly well in animals do very poorly when used to treat people. Now, of course, it makes sense to test a treatment on animals first, but to claim that a technique can go from early animal trials to human treatment in a year is naive, at best.

Also, to make a blanket statement that it will be “a complete cure for cancer” is silly, since there are so many different forms of cancer. It’s possible that their technique might be a great cure for some forms of cancer, but the idea that it will treat all (or even most) forms of cancer seems shockingly inconsistent with what we know about the nature of cancer itself.

Of course, no one will be happier than me if I am wrong. I have had skin cancer removed, and my wife recently had a cancerous breast tumor removed. Thus, a cure for cancer would clearly make me very happy. Nevertheless, I don’t think there will be one within a year, and even if there is one, I suspect that it will only be able to treat specific types of cancer.

These Climate Scientists Predict Global Cooling

Global Temperatures past, present, and future, according to three climate scientists. (Figure 3 from the study being discussed)

The majority of climate scientists think that global temperatures have risen over the past century mostly because of human activity. However, there are some climate scientists who think that the small changes we have seen in global temperature are mostly the result of natural variations that exist independently of people. Others simply say we don’t have enough information to know how much human activity has played a role in the process. Add to that the unreliability of much of the early data regarding global temperatures, and you end up with a picture that is far more murky than what most media outlets and politicians want you to see.

A recently-published study might help to eventually shed some light on how much human activity affects global temperatures. It comes from four climate scientists in China who are affiliated with The Climate Center of the Zhejiang Meteorologic Bureau, the Earth Science School of Zhejiang University, and the Shanghai Climate Center. They are convinced that the vast majority of the changes we have seen in global temperatures are due to natural variations, and those variations are buffered by the oceans. As a result, they have tried to analyze global temperatures from that perspective.

Since global temperature data sets don’t really agree with one another, they first had to choose which global temperatures they would actually use. They chose the Global Land Surface Temperature Anomaly Index (GLST) as compiled by the NOAA. They then tried to find correlations between those data and the Sea Surface Temperatures (SST) as compiled by the Hadley Climate Center. The correlations they found led them to develop a mathematical equation that would reproduce the GLST data. While the idea of finding a single equation that would fit all the GLST data might seem like an impossible task, it is not. One phrase I often hear from my nuclear chemistry colleagues is, “It only takes four parameters to fit an elephant.” In other words, if you have enough parameters in your equation, you can fit just about anything.

Of course, for something as complex as global temperatures, it takes more than four parameters. In fact, their paper indicates that it took 20. However, with their 20-parameter equation, they were able to reasonably reproduce the global temperature data that they were analyzing. The results can be seen in the image at the top of the post. The jagged, grey line indicates the data, and the smoother, black line indicates the results of their equation. As you can see, it does a pretty good job of fitting the known data.

Does that mean their equation is a good explanation of global temperatures? Not at all. It is simply an equation that has been forced to fit the data. What I find interesting, however, are the temperatures it predicts for the future. According to the equation, the earth has hit its maximum temperature for a while, and over the next 100+ years, the average temperature of the planet will cool. Do I think that prediction is correct? There is no way I can adequately judge that. There are simply too many unknowns in climate science for anyone to make a reliable prediction about what is going to happen in the future. Perhaps we will eventually learn enough about climate science to change that, but right now, the uncertainties simply preclude reasonable predictions.

However, here’s what I will say about this very interesting study: The authors assume that that the vast majority of the temperature variations we have seen are the result of natural processes. If, over the next 30 years, the data continue to fall in line with the predictions of their equation, that will lend more credence to their assumption. If not, that will indicate that either their assumption is wrong, or that some of the natural variations which cause global temperature changes are too long-term to show up in a century’s worth of unreliable temperature data.

Regardless of the outcome, I do think that this paper, while simple in its approach, is a valuable addition to climate science.

Big News in Epigenetics!

The Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park holds bacteria like the ones in the study being discussed.
(click for credit)

The more we learn about creation, the more it surprises us. While it is true in all areas of science, it seems particularly true in genetics. When I was at university, I was taught as definitive fact that each gene in my DNA determined the makeup of one protein in my body. We now know that is false. I was also taught as definitive fact that the only way a parent can transmit a trait to its offspring is through the sequence of nucleotide bases in DNA. As a result, if a new trait appears in a population, it must be due to a change in the species’ DNA sequence. We now know that is false. For example, I was taught as definitive fact in university that cave fish are blind because of mutations to their DNA. We now know that is false, at least for one species of blind cave fish.

So we now know that there are ways to inherit traits that go beyond the DNA sequence that you inherit from both parents. For example, we know that if you train mice to fear a certain smell, the next generation can inherit that fear. It’s not that the parents train the fear into their offspring (the offspring were raised separate from their trained parent). They actually inherited the fear. How in the world can a parent pass on a fear of something to its offspring? That’s what the field of epigenetics (which literally means “on top of genetics”) wants to find out.

We know that it has something to do with how an organism regulates the activity of its genes. An organism can alter chemical aspects of the DNA that are not related to its actual sequence, and that alteration can decrease the use of a gene, increase the use of a gene, turn a gene off so that it is not used at all, or turn a gene on so that it will start being used. For example, most people are not born lactose intolerant. After all, they drink their mother’s milk or a milk-based formula. Milk digestion requires the enzyme called “lactase,” which is coded for by a gene. While everyone has that gene turned on at birth, in some people, it gets turned off later on, causing lactose intolerance. Nothing has changed in the person’s DNA sequence – the gene is still there and has not been broken. However, that gene has been turned off by epigenetic mechanisms. It is thought that this process is responsible for epigenetic inheritance. To some extent, we must be able to inherit the “off” and “on” status of our parents’ genes.

Continue reading “Big News in Epigenetics!”

Another Reason to Doubt the Global Climate Models

The study discussed in this article was performed in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I am very skeptical of climate models that predict the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Initially, this was due to my own experience with large-scale computer models. In my early scientific research, I both wrote and used them, so I know how much their results are affected by the assumptions programmed into them. As time has gone on, my skepticism has increased, since it has been demonstrated over and over again that the climate models do not line up with the most relevant data.

Why do the climate models compare so poorly to the appropriate data? Mostly because they contain many assumptions that have not been tested. Typically, these assumptions neglect the idea that the earth has negative feedback mechanisms, which are the hallmark of nearly every well-designed system. As time has gone on, many such negative feedback mechanisms have been found, and they typically run counter to the assumptions programmed into the climate models (see here, here, and here, for example). It seems that a graduate student from the University of Virginia (Stephanie Roe) has found yet another of earth’s negative feedback mechanisms.

There is a lot of dead, decaying matter on the floors of the tropical forests of the world. As that dead matter decomposes, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Well, decomposition is driven by chemical reactions, and chemical reactions speed up with increasing temperature. So, as the world warms, what should happen to the rate of carbon dioxide produced by decomposition? It should increase, right? That will release more carbon dioxide into the air, which will accelerate warming. This is an example of a positive feedback mechanism. In such a mechanism, a change promotes a process that amplifies the change. This particular positive feedback mechanism is programmed into the climate models that are being used to predict the consequences of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

While that assumption makes perfect sense, the real world often works differently from our simple assumptions. That’s one reason Stephanie Roe decided to test it. She went to Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest, where the US Forest Service set up infrared heaters in different parts of the forest. Those heaters were programmed to keep their surroundings 4 degrees Celsius warmer than the rest of the forest. Those parts of the forest, then, should behave like the tropical forests will behave if the earth warms by an average of 4 degrees. In addition, there were parts of the forest where identical, non-working heaters were placed. They served as control areas – they stayed at the normal temperature of the forest, but they had the physical structures of the heaters present. Roe introduced various kinds of dead matter (both native and non-native) to the forest in both the warmed sections and the control sections. She then collected samples later to test the rate of decomposition in each.

What did she find? She found that the result was precisely opposite of what is programmed into the climate models. The warmed areas of the forests had slower rates of decomposition than the control areas. Why? According to her research, it is because the warmer parts of the forest were drier. The process of decomposition is accelerated strongly by moisture, so the loss of moisture slowed down the decomposition more than the higher temperature sped it up. Thus, according to her research, increased temperatures should reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced by decomposition. This, of course, is an example of a negative feedback mechanism: a change promotes a process that decreases the rate of change. Once again, such mechanisms are the hallmark of designed systems, so it is not surprising that it exists here on earth.

The more we learn about climate, the less confidence I have in the predictions of the climate change doomsayers.

What a Way to Bring in the New Year!

An aerial view of the Large Hadron Collider’s layout. The particle accelerator is used for high-energy physics experiments. (click for credit)

I wasn’t planning on writing a post today, but as I was going through my email, I saw a wonderful message from a homeschool graduated who used my curriculum, and I just had to post about it. I am keeping the person’s name and some of the professional details confidential (using square brackets to paraphrase and ellipses to cut), because I don’t want the person’s presence on a creationist blog to be harmful to his or her career. It’s sad that I have to do that, but many of the high priests of science are the most anti-science people on the planet, excommunicating those who do not accept their dogma.

Here is the wonderful message I received:

I am writing to thank you for your excellent high school science courses. As a homeschooler, I really appreciated the readability of the texts. The challenging material helped me to develop effective study habits, while your clear enthusiasm for each subject led me to develop a lasting interest in the sciences, especially physics. In fact, after working through Module 8 (“Gravity and Relativity”) of your Advanced Physics Course, I decided to pursue a career in physics. Though I didn’t really have any idea of what that would entail, I figured that your science courses would be an ideal preparation, and indeed they were! Largely due to to the strong foundation that your courses (Physical Science, Biology, The Human Body, Chemistry, Advanced Chemistry, Physics, and Advanced Physics) had provided me throughout middle school and high school, I was able to complete my BS in physics a year early. This helped me to be successful in the treacherous grad school application process, and I am now a [graduate student at a well-known university] pursuing a PhD in experimental particle physics; I’m [doing original research at facilities like the one pictured above]; these are goals that I have looked forward to for a long time. Your courses have been key in successfully beginning to achieve these goals…so thank you for helping to make all of this possible!

As one further note, I’d also like to add that I really appreciate how your texts touched on more advanced topics, even if only to ultimately concede that they were “beyond the scope of this course.” Though I found it a bit frustrating at the time, it really motivated me to keep pushing deeper into the subject, making it all the more satisfying to finally encounter the topic in a later class. For example, your brief description of solving the Schrodinger equation for hydrogen (page 50 of your Advanced Chemistry text) had me on the edge of my seat until finally reaching this problem in undergrad Quantum II. Currently, my Quantum Field Theory textbook tends to make the same sort of statements…and it reminds me of your superlative texts (though when I come across statements like these in QFT, it tends to make me relieved rather than frustrated – I’m happy to leave that particular calculation to the theorists!).

Anyway, I’m sure you get many messages like this, but I just really wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your texts and how much they have aided me in the career path that they inspired me to pursue…

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

There are so many wonderful things to say about this student’s message to me, but I will limit myself to two:

1) I love the fact that this person was “on the edge of” his or her seat because of a solution to the Schrodinger equation!

2) This once again demonstrates that Bill Nye has no idea what he is talking about when he claims that creationist materials are a detriment to science. This student learned junior-high and high-school science from creationist materials, and those materials inspired him or her to be doing the kind of original scientific research that Nye can only dream about doing.