Choose your own science

4 08 2009

In the lead up to Australia’s National Science Week this month (don’t forget to sign up for that), the Australia Museum is holding People’s Choice Awards for their Eureka Science Prizes.

GO VOTE. (There are prizes for Australian residents)

I actually have connections with one of these scientists! Squeee! I am like legitimate (or not…). Kathy Belov, nominated for her work regarding the genetics of the Tadmanian Devil facial tumour (DFTD). Marsupial immunology is a small field, so Kathy was one of the collaborators with my ex-supervisor on the launchblock for my research (one of my former lab-mates now has Kathy as a PhD co-supervisor) – near the end of my research our lab received some very useful American marsupial DNA libraries from her.Good luck Kathy.

And if transmissible facial cancer in devils is not cool enough for you there is also:





Name your job

12 07 2009

One of the final pieces I need to line up is part time work while I study, if only to minimise my need to deal with Centrelink.

This means dusting off and brushing up the old resumé… and making myself as appealing as possible to employers.

Something interesting in my “to post” box was some research out of Canada that showed employers are discriminating against persons with non-English names that might be perceived as difficult to pronounce. If you’d like to see the names they used, the actual working paper here: Why Do Skilled Immigrants Struggle in the Labor Market? A Field Experiment with Six Thousand Resumes.

A few weeks after I read this item, the story circulated in the Australian press, this time citing an Australian study from ANU that used only 4,000 resumes. Headlines abounded stating that Australian bosses were racist.

Now this may be fair conclusion, but it neglects to mention that this scenario is the same any where – someone with a local sounding name is always more likely to be hired (the Australian study found that Italian surnames were no hinderance in Melbourne, a city with Australia’s largest Italian community). This does not mean it’s an okay practice, but it is something to consider.





For just one dollar a day

29 06 2009

No, I am not about  to con you into some religious sponsorship program.* Absolutely no African children for sale here.

It’s about SunSmart awareness and skin cancer prevention. The idea is that for $1 per day per person the Australian government could encourage people to regularly use sunscreen and prevent over 100,000 cancers and 20 deaths each year. This is based on some trials done in Queensland.

Now some of you might be trying to do the math. It is a little over 8 billion dollars annually for Australia’s 22 million inhabitants. But the authors make a compelling case by comparing it to the cost of public cosmetics expenditure, as well as government spending on vaccines (which cost $100s per dose).

Sunscreen is important for all Australians.

An exemplary example of framing science?

*Food for thought on religious-based missions here, here, and here





Scabies treatment uptake in regional indigenous communities

21 06 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgIn doing some background research for this blog entry, I discovered scabies causes 1 death in Australia per year. Yikes!

That aside, the point of this blog was to help illustrate that health is not just about big killer diseases. And that non-lethal diseases are not issues that do not need to be taken seriously. A non-lethal disease like scabies still represents a burden on the community. It drains on health resources, it also drains on family resources, and can also be a source of conflict and agitation.

This paper is an Australian study published through PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, it examines scabies and treatment uptake in two rural Aboriginal communities in northern Australia. A number of factors lead to these communities experiencing a high burden of scabies infestation – including distance from resources, household overcrowding and high mobility between households. Those most at risk are young children.

In general, the best known way to control endemic scabies is through community-based mass treatment initiatives. However these initiatives require community awareness and cooperation in order to be successful. This study looked to not only measure levels of cooperation and success, but also what barriers exist in the community that might hinder such initiatives.

Scabies is primarily an inflammatory condition caused by the bodies reaction to burrowing behaviour and eggs laid by the scabies mite (pictured to the left). In Australia, the approved treatment for scabies is a topical cream, permethin that is applied to the entire body. In the study, a “Healthy Skin Day” was held in the community, and all community members were advised to utilise the cream over an 8-day period. The study then followed those households in which at one or more cases of childhood scabies were subsequently identified.

If a child was diagnosed with scabies, the parent was given cream to use not only on the child, but every other member of the household. Not only is this because there is likely to be others not diagnosed but affected in the same household, but the mites are likely to just leave the treated person and go over to new host.

As expected scabies susceptibility was lower in households that experienced universal treatment. However, while 80% of children directly diagnosed with scabies used the supplied creams, compliance rates amongst other people advised to follow the treatment because of someone else in the household being diagnosed was less satisfactory (44% of these persons used the cream). Just over three quarters of households had at least one household member not take the treatment, and in almost a fifth no one followed the treatment. The study also noted that treatment cooperative households were more likley to remain in the study, meaning that if anything these statistics are possibly over-estimating compliance rates.

There were multiple factors that contributed to treatment not being followed through: treatment not being a priority, treatment was not considered necessary, and treatment caused discomfort. The first two of these responses point to issues in education and trust. The community needs to be aware of the burden of disease on the community, and the benefits of treatment. Trust is a more trickier issue, as the relationship between indigenous communities and the government is one giant elephant that I’m not quite ready to take on that I’m not quite wanting to take on at the moment. The last points to a question of whether the proscribed treatment is appropriate for these communities.

The authors point out that in a hot, crowded environment, a sticky cream-like substance is possibly not the most enjoyable of treatments to experience. The cream also needs to be washed off in the morning, and with drought and water access also being an issue in regional communities, provides further complications with treatment compliance. Sadly while creams like permethin are the only treatments available in Australia at present, oral treatments for scabies do exist and would seem on the front a more acceptable treatment for the tropical environment. Pills might also be considered more like “real working medicine” and therefore encourage higher rates of compliance.

This study, while obviously not carried out with unlimited resources, does a very good job at highlighting the multiple factors that complicate rural health.


La Vincente, S., Kearns, T., Connors, C., Cameron, S., Carapetis, J., & Andrews, R. (2009). Community Management of Endemic Scabies in Remote Aboriginal Communities of Northern Australia: Low Treatment Uptake and High Ongoing Acquisition PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 3 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0000444

Image credit: Scabies by MacAllenBrothers





Who is testing cancer vaccines?

15 06 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgAs I wrap up my “Pharma is your Phriend” series, lets take a look at some more research.

This is a very interesting analysis of cancer vaccine trials using data mining from Open Access journal, Immunome Research.

The authors have taken advantage of there being quite a lot of publicly available information on clinical trials these days (yes, it is there, if you know where to look¹) to amass a whole host of information on cancer vaccine clinical trials for a type of analysis known as data mining.

There own summary of the results reads:

This application enables rapid extraction of information about institutions, diseases, clinical approaches, clinical trials dates, predominant cancer types in the trials, clinical opportunities and pharmaceutical market coverage. Presentation of results is facilitated by visualization tools that summarize the landscape of ongoing and completed cancer vaccine trials. Our summaries show the number of clinical vaccine trials per cancer type, over time, by phase, by lead sponsors, as well as trial activity relative to cancer type and survival data. We also have identified cancers that are neglected in the cancer vaccine field: bladder, liver, pancreatic, stomach, esophageal, and all of the low-incidence cancers.

Two cool things I learned from the paper were: Vaccines for cancers have been in development since the 1970s, and melanoma has been the cancer studied most for a vaccine, even though the first ones out to market have been for cervical cancer (expect melanoma vaccines in the next 1-5 years?).

But as we are looking to shift this discussion towards the pharmaceutical industry, let’s look at who runs clinical trials (Pop up: Figure 2a).

Read the rest of this entry »





Women need to apply more to achieve representation in MSTE

3 06 2009

Women just aren’t applying enough to get senior faculty and tenure track positions in maths, science, technology and engineering (MSTE). Perhaps I should rephrase, the report suggests that underrepresentation may be a result of women not applying for positions in the first place. Ha! not nearly as mysoginistic as you thought.

The congressionally mandated study, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, concluded that women are hired in similar proportions to that they are interviewed. For example in maths, women made up 20% of applicants, 28% of intervewees and 32% of job offers. That doesn’t seem to smell of discrimination against women in science technology, does it?

Th problem is that first figure is low. More than 20% of doctorates in math are awarded to women. So why aren’t women applying for the jobs?

The press release I read doesn’t identify any particular reason for this difference. It notes “most institutional strategies to try to increase the proportion of women in the applicant pool … did not show significant effectiveness [except] Having a female chair of the search committee and a high number of women on the committee were associated with a higher number of women in the applicant pool”. Suggesting lack of prominent role models might be factor. The comitte rests on the ubiquitous phrase “[more] Research is needed to investigate why more women are not applying for these jobs”.





Oils ain’t oils: the essentials

2 06 2009

ResearchBlogging.orgYou may have noticed my general feeling about so-called “alternative medicine” is that there is no “alternative” to medicine. One of my friends puts it another way:

Q. What do you call an alternative medicine that works?

A. Medicine.

There is no grand pharmaceutical conspiracy against natural remedies. Once a treatment demonstrates value to medical science, it will become accepted as medicine. That’s why, while you last month science bloggers descended upon a laughably flawed acupuncture study flouted as proof of effect and tore it to pieces, I doubt there’ll be a similar response at this a new international study currently in print that shows essential oils may have a role to play in combating infections caused by multi-resistant microbes.

It’s actually quite a well done study, with interesting results that provide an opportunity for the complementary medicine industry to clean up it’s act and get on board with whole evidence-based medicine paradigm, rather than remaining in the realm of snake oil and shamanism.

Read the rest of this entry »








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