Cancer Treatment On The Brink Of A Breakthrough

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Some pretty astonishing research has been carried out at my old alma mater, the University of Leeds, but none more so than the latest ground-breaking work in treatment for brain cancer.

Susan Short, the Professor of Clinical Oncology and Neuro-oncology, says, “I tend to shy away from the world ‘cure’ but this is the most exciting potential treatment I’ve seen in my career.”

The Leeds discovery will revolutionise cancer treatment, and means, in theory, that brain cancer can be cured with a simple injection.  Professor Short is now leading the attempt to fund the final stage of the research from alumni.

The team’s approach utilises a virus to turn on the body’s own immune system to fight one of the deadliest forms of cancer and one which has seen very few advances in treatment in recent years.  It’s a deceptively simple theory.  Cancer hides from the immune system.  When the virus infects tumour cells (see the diagram above), the immune system recognises the virus and is switched on to fight the cells.

The key is to use a virus that’s essentially harmless to the rest of the body, but is toxic to cancer cells. This delivers a double blow to the cancer – the virus and the immune system both attack cancer cells.

Until now the only way to get these therapies into the brain was through surgery. But the Leeds breakthrough uses a simple injection into the bloodstream, which sends the virus directly to the brain tumour.

Leeds is the only UK university researching this treatment, and it has the experts and facilities in place to see it through to completion once the latest tranche of funding has been complete.  The alumni research fund can be found here.

The World Is Better Than You Think

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Deep breath.  Look around.

Famine is being eliminated. In 2014, 850 million suffered from malnutrition, the lowest figure on record.  Meanwhile, 2.1 billion were overweight.  In 1918, Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million in a year, compared to the 40 million who died in WWI.  But in 2014, the Ebola outbreak – “the most severe public health emergency in modern times”, according to the World Health Organisation – was stopped at 11,000 deaths.  In the 20th century, human violence accounted for 5% of all deaths.  In the 21st century, it’s 1%.  In 2012 56 million people died, but war caused only 120,000 of those deaths.

All these figures are quoted from Yuval Noah Harari’s very highly-recommended book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow (review coming soon to this site).

Those historical harbingers of the apocalypse, war, famine and pestilence, are still far too widespread, but every indicator is improving, and here in 2016, improving rapidly.

Some people out there see an advantage in proclaiming how terrible things are, that all around we have only decline and degradation and that things were always so much better in the past.  Don’t listen to them.

We’re on the cusp of a golden age.

The innovations and advancements created by clever people – the ‘elite’, I suppose – are improving every aspect of our life.  Two days ago, a team at MiT took us a step closer to unlimited clean energy.  Breakthroughs in cancer treatment are coming so fast it’s hard to keep track of them.  Advances in food production techniques, and in health, and the consistently falling global poverty levels will push those Four Horsemen to the fringes.

But the danger now is that we sit back and wait for this new dawn to arrive.  That we foolishly think that everyone wants this better time that’s coming.  It’s going to be great, why wouldn’t they?

No.  Barriers lie everywhere.  Malign forces are working hard to ensure this golden age never comes about, people, and ideologies, who will find no place for themselves in this better world.

Putin has spoken publicly about how his plans for Russia are centred around stopping liberal western values in their tracks – he wants his growing empire to be a bastion of conservatism – and we’ve already seen how the prospect of a third world war is looming.  The global death cult ISIS may be suffering a set-back on its territory in Mosul, but it’s ideology won’t easily be destroyed and it’s committed to a medieval world-view.

And then there are the domestic forces that want to hold everything back – in the US and UK, in France, Germany and across the West, not just the people who are afraid of change, and they are many, but those whose power bases and belief systems are firmly rooted in the 20th century.

If you look at the electoral battles taking place, it’s easy to think this is politics as usual.  Same old parties, same old faces.  It’s not.  What we are now living through is an epochal battle.

This was all predicted in one of my favourite books of the last decade, The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin.  The former IBM staffer talked about the tech age back in 1978 in his book The Wired Society, and in this later work he looks at how the world will be changed by technology throughout this century.  But he insisted that it wouldn’t be plain sailing.  He described this process as a river, which plunges into a narrow ravine and becomes a hell of white water, before broadening out into a peaceful drift into a pleasant future.

We’re in that ravine now, and the turbulence is going to be great.  But if we want to come out the other side, we all have to work together to oppose those who’d rather see the whole raft sink.

Left and Right was a good way of defining the political struggle of the last century.  No longer.  Now, all over the West, party barriers are being transcended.

The true political battle of the 21st century is the past versus the future.  You have Left and Right on both sides, one tribe looking back to a perceived golden age, one looking forward, with vested interests everywhere tugging at sleeves.

There’s no room for sitting on the fence.  Our choice now is to stand up, argue, vote for the person or party that’s at least vaguely heading for the destination you want, even if they’re not your perfect choice.  (As an aside, there are no perfect choices in politics.)

I’m looking to the future – that’s where the world I want to live in exists.  You?

 

The Universe Is Us, And We Are The Universe

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Fascinating work being done by Sir Roger Penrose and Professor Stuart Hameroff which suggests the brain is constantly linked on the quantum level to fluctuations in the very structure of the universe and reacts accordingly. Instead of the brain being a computational device, it’s actually more like an orchestra making music from all the information the universe sends us. I find that a vey elegant metaphor that makes more sense of what’s going on in my head than saying it’s just a pink jelly PC.

We are the universe and the universe is us, all information passing back and forth. The Buddhists were right.

You can find more at Hameroff’s Quantum Consciousness website.

Can Google Solve Death?

A couple of posts back, I opened a review of Ray Kurzweil’s book Transcend with the line, ‘Want to live forever?’  Seems that quite a few people do, and some are prepared to put a big heap of cash up front to make that happen.

Google has just announced the launch of Project Calico, an offshoot company designed to tackle the illnesses of ageing and, in essence, to find a way to beat death.  If you read Kurzweil’s book, that’s not as crazy as it sounds.  The technology is coming, and with Google’s backing could come a lot faster.

It looks like Google chief Larry Page has also read Transcend.  Earlier this year, Google hired Kurzweil, and it seems this may have been with Calico in mind.  The world is changing fast.

In the 20C, you became a big player in the business world with a psychological outlook  that was not in any way admirable – studies have shown the most successful are literally psychopaths.  (That account says 1 in 25 – recent studies say it may be much higher…)

In the 21C and the knowledge-based economy, you don’t need to be a psychopath to get on, you need to be smart.  The new breed of business leaders emerging from Silicon Valley are, almost to a person, utopians – they want to make their heap of cash, but they want to make the world better at the same time (presaged all those years ago by Google’s famous informal company motto, Don’t Be Evil).

The world is changing better.

Live Forever – Book Review

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TRANSCEND by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman

Want to live forever? This is the book for you. That may sound like a fatuous statement to accompany some woolly, magical thinking guide, but everything here is based on the latest scientific studies (all referenced, if you don’t want to take the authors at their word). Indeed, Kurzweil is a leading scientific philosopher, best-known for his writing on the coming technology singularity. Grossman is a doctor.

How can you live forever? It’s a simple equation. In the 2020s, biotech advances will extend lifespans. In the 2030s, nanotech advances will help your body repair itself ad infinitum. This book is a guide to everything you can do yourself to help you live just long enough to reach the first ‘bridge’, which should then carry you through to the second. Simple. Here is all the latest thinking on nutrition, exercise, relaxation, supplements, calorie reduction, new technologies and more – and not just what works, but why it works. You will also find some of the surprising, hidden things that are slowly killing you. And if you think you know all this stuff, I’m betting that you don’t.

None of the advice is onerous. Little changes have big consequences. Even if you’re a confirmed cynic, making those changes will undoubtedly make you feel better, so what’s to lose?

If you don’t consider yourself ‘scientifically minded’, don’t worry – all the scientific evidence here isn’t hard-going. The two authors have a lively writing style and communicate detailed information in an easily-digested form. This is a ‘how to…’ guide, recommended for everyone. Philosophically, it’ll make you look at the world around you in a different way. And as a template for really improving your day-to-day existence, it’s unparalleled.

Stonehenge Origins Uncovered

Experts have identified the precise location in Wales of some of the megaliths used in the construction of Stonehenge.

It’s a pretty major achievement to discover the location of the millennia-old quarry down to a few metres, but this also throws up some new mysteries. The rhyolitic rocks differ from all others in South Wales. The presumption is that they were chosen for a specific reason. How were they identified and why? There has been some interesting work done elsewhere into the acoustic qualities of particular stones at prehistoric sites. Is this important?

And this discovery has also kicked a hole in theories of how the stones were transplanted to Salisbury Plain. A consensus was growing that they were floated on rafts along the coast, but the exact location’s inaccessibility to water makes this unlikely. The old geologic theory – that the stones were pushed by advancing glaciers from Wales to Wiltshire during the ice age – is pretty flimsy as there aren’t any other Welsh rocks scattered around the Plain.

Bow To Your Tentacled Overlords

New research suggests cephalopods may have developed consciousness before mammals – the first truly thinking creatures on the planet.

Scientists have found cephalopods – including squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses – can use tools, navigate mazes, learn from each other, mimic other species and solve complex problems.

Yet they followed a completely different evolutionary line to “smart” vertebrates like chimps, dolphins and crows.

New Scientist reports: “Octopuses make it notoriously difficult to get recordings from electrodes inserted into the brain, because they can selectively shut off blood supply to an area of their body or brain. That’s if they allow the researchers to insert electrodes at all. Jennifer Basil, a cephalopod researcher at the City University of New York tells the story of one colleague who took on that challenge: ‘He thought the octopus was anaesthetised, so they put the electrode in and the octopus reached up with an arm and pulled it out.’ That marked the end of his work with octopuses. ‘He has worked with lots of animals but he said “that animal knows what I’m thinking. He doesn’t want me to do this so I’m not going to”,’ Basil says.”

You have been warned.

Eight Unbroken Codes

Anyone who’s read The Scar-Crow Men knows that codes play an important part in the story, as they did for real spies in the sixteenth century…and today.

New Scientist has a great article this week on eight codes that still remain unbroken, from the famous Voynich Manuscript to the CIA’s Kryptos monument to one of the final messages from the Zodiac serial killer.

Worth a read. You’ll have to sign up, for free, but you only get a window of a couple of days to check it out.

The Limits Of Science

“We live in an age in which science enjoys remarkable success. We have mapped out a grand scheme of how the physical universe works on scales from quarks to galactic clusters, and of the living world from the molecular machinery of cells to the biosphere. There are gaps, of course, but many of them are narrowing. The scientific endeavour has proved remarkably fruitful, especially when you consider that our brains evolved for survival on the African savannah, not to ponder life, the universe and everything. So, having come this far, is there any stopping us?

The answer has to be yes: there are limits to science. There are some things we can never know for sure because of the fundamental constraints of the physical world. Then there are the problems that we will probably never solve because of the way our brains work. And there may be equivalents to Rees’s observation about chimps and quantum mechanics – concepts that will forever lie beyond our ken.”

Interesting article in New Scientist (you’ll have to register, for free, to read it), examining how there could be some – perhaps many – things that we’re just not capable of discovering.

The author identifies a few – what lies beyond the cosmic horizon? how life began? – and then briefly dives in to the polarised consciousness debate (an area of personal interest). Here the argument is pretty much split between those who believe we will never discover what consciousness is and the reductivist mechanics who believe if we break down the brain just a little bit more we will find exactly which bit does what.

I’ve interviewed experts on both sides of the debate. From the snarky comment above, you might guess that I’m not 100% convinced by the reductivist approach and you’d be right. Roger Penrose’s suggestion that a quantum process underpins the nature of consciousness seems more elegant and interesting.

Worth a read.

A New Force Of Nature

Research physicists using a particle accelerator may have discovered a new force of nature. The team at the Tevatron is currently analysing its data before announcing it has found a previously-unknown particle.

If it is in fact true, Dr Hooper believes that the mystery particle represents an undiscovered “fundamental force”.

“We’d essentially be saying there’s a new force of nature being communicated by the particle. We know that there’s four forces: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. This would be the fifth; every freshman physics class would have to change their textbooks.”