2010 Reflections: On Science – 2010

Genetic testing is coming of age and is especially valuable to the medical profession in targeting immunotherapies for specific diseases. Individuals can even send in cheek swabs and spend up to $500 to have their DNA checked for genes that might be associated with certain diseases. The customer receives a report listing genes that supposedly predispose the person to everything from bladder cancer to venous thromboembolism. The truth is that whether a gene causes a disease is influenced by the entirety of a person’s genetic make-up, as well as environmental factors, and disease often depends on several gene variants (e.g., the BRCA breast-cancer gene has several variants). Most physicians argue that family health history is a better predictor of cancer risk than personal genomic testing.

It seems to me that in 2010 more people believe that global warming is occurring, and that human activities are playing a role. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is becoming widely accepted as significant factor in global warming. In 2010 high-tech analyses of boron isotopes in shells of plankton from ancient sea bottoms indicate that CO2 levels over the past 2.1 million years averaged about 280 parts/million (ppm). Measurements from the Scripps Institute, NOAA, and the Mauna Loa Observatory, indicate the following trends in CO2 levels. In 1955, the level was 310 ppm; in 2008, 382.98 ppm; in 2009, 384.36 ppm; and in 2010, 387.18 ppm. The hope is that sooner, rather than later, people will join together to exert maximum political pressure on governments to begin to address global warming.

There seems to be an uptick in the realization that many chemicals we are exposed to on a regular basis have deleterious effects on our health, and that we can’t always count on government agencies, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to protect us. For example, the ubiquitous bisphenol A, or BPA, is now known to reduce sperm counts in men. BPA is the estrogen-mimicking chemical widely used in plastics and the lining of food cans. A major study involved 514 factory workers in China, where it was found that those who worked with BPA were four times more likely to have lowered sperm counts and twice as likely to have aberrant sperm. Even workers exposed to low concentrations of BPA showed lowered sperm counts. In spite of the fact that BPA is banned in other countries, the chemical lobby continues to exert pressure on our government to permit its use.

The year saw many advances in neuroscience. At a recent meeting, Dr. Mark Ellisman clearly articulated the goal of neuroscience research: “…to understand how the interplay of structural, chemical, and electrical signals in nervous tissue gives rise to behavior.” In trying to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, the thinking is that treatments must be initiated early on to have any effect on disease progression. This will require early identification of disease markers in the spinal fluid or by using brain scanning techniques. New methods of obtaining ultrathin slices of brain tissue allow researchers to scan sequential slices into the computer and precisely follow the interconnections of neurons in three-dimensions. This can provide a “wiring diagram” of parts of the brain. Other researchers are obtaining time-lapse video images of the formation of synaptic connections in living neurons, and the formation and stability of these junctions are being mapped in real time. Advances were made in treating Multiple Sclerosis using combination therapy with a drug (interferon beta-1a) that stimulates the immune system and the antibiotic deoxcycline. Clues to the origin of Parkinson’s Disease are coming from the discovery that cigarette-smokers are less likely to develop the disease, and that families of Parkinson’s patients appear to share susceptible factors of a genetic or non-genetic nature. Also, the link between the disease and early exposure to the herbicide paraquat appears real. This is another of those chemicals that escaped the regulatory scrutiny of government agencies.

Perhaps the best news for 2010 is the general awareness of the fragility of our environment and a growing understanding of man’s place in the web of nature. It’s exciting that this awareness appears to be led by younger generations, from kindergarten to those graduating from college or technical schools. It will take several generations for people who take our environment for granted to be replaced by those who understand the importance of our forests and oceans, animal and plant diversity, and sustainability. The thread running through our new awareness is that we cannot continue to exist as we have, and our long-term hope is that our leaders put the environment first and their politics and re-election second. America’s future hinges on collective, not polarized, leadership.