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How are medical discoveries made? In a previous post (“The Art of Scientific Discovery”), I looked at several models by which science has progressed A sharply focused, systematic pursuit led to the discovery of insulin. An accidental observation produced a drug to treat erectile disfunction. Those, and the other examples of medical advances described there involved more-or-less conventional approaches. But there’s an unconventional approach that appeals to people confronting difficult medical issues.… Read the rest “EXPERIMENTING ON YOURSELF”

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The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is highly infectious, and can be spread by physical contact or by aerosols, sprays of tiny droplets we expel when we cough, sneeze, or even talk. We know now that surgical masks can block the transmission of the virus, but at the beginning of the pandemic, experts weren’t advising most people to wear them. The reasons for this were complicated, and included shortages that posed a danger to health care workers if there was a sudden run on the mask market.… Read the rest “Masks and soap”

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(Electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 from NIAID-RML)

It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. That aphorism has been attributed to a long list of prognosticators, including the legendary wordsmith and NY Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra. Yogi was eminently quotable, including such gems as, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But he wasn’t the first people’s scholar to have that insight into the difficulty of making predictions. It was apparently spoken in the Danish parliament, in 1937 or 1938, in Danish.… Read the rest “The future of coronavirus”

As of March 4, 2020 the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, has spread to more than 77 countries. More than 93,000 cases have been reported, and just under 3,200 deaths. It’s thought that the virus infected its first human victim in the city of Wuhan in China, in November, 2019. That case was apparently caused by transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from an animal. Since then, it has spread by human-to-human contact. The virus probably originated in bats, and then likely passed through another animal before it found its human host.… Read the rest “The Drift of Coronavirus”

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Necora puber. Photograph: Hans Hillewaert

Cancer is one our most feared diseases, so it isn’t surprising that we notice when it is linked to other parts of our lives. And it’s also not surprising that stories which sound plausible, but which may or may not be supported by evidence, or which are misunderstood, become part of our culture. Three such stories are, that we are in an epidemic of cancer, that vitamin C is a useful anti-cancer agent, and that an abortion increases a woman’s risk of later breast cancer.… Read the rest “Three Cancer Myths”

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Charles Best and Frederick Banting, with one of their research subjects. University of Toronto Archives

This post describes some of the many pathways to scientific discovery. No single model applies to all discoveries, and most discoveries contain elements of different models. I will focus on the field I know best, biomedical research. Biomedical discoveries are usually, but not exclusively, the result of hypothesis- and curiosity-driven “small science”. In contrast, the first report of evidence for the Higgs Boson at the LHC in Switzerland listed over 2500 authors from some 180 institutions, and depended on the construction of a 5 billion dollar supercollider with an annual operating budget of one billion.… Read the rest “THE ART OF SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY”

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Samuel Hahnemann, father of homeopathic medicine.

A paper published in the June 30, 1988 issue of the high-profile scientific journal Nature shocked the biomedical research world. Its anodyne title, “Human Basophil Degranulation Triggered by Very Dilute Antiserum Against IgE”, probably didn’t cause any non-scientists to choke on their breakfast cereal. But in the eyes of the mainstream scientific world, the article made a radical claim: Pure water, admittedly with a special history, could generate an immune reaction in a test tube.… Read the rest “The Fading Memory of Water”