Maybe it is the system after all

This is a totally NONscientific post.

My late father and his brother had the classic liberal conservative argument for the 60 years or so I was intellectually conscious enough to register it (and probably longer). His brother would say ‘it’s the system’ – all we have to do is change it and things would be better. My father would say people will corrupt any system.

Our family was full of people of the left, and my mother recalls someone arguing in all seriousness that Finland had attacked Russia in WWII. I can well recall the gloom pervading a family gathering after Eisenhower beat Stevenson, and the imprecations of disaster to follow.

Based on decades of medical practice, I tended to agree with my father. Now I’m not so sure.

But first 3 examples:

The Veteran’s Administration system: The original impetus for a system was to care for injured soldiers in peacetime. Who could possibly object to that. Yet as a resident in the 70’s our acute ward was so filled with very chronic patients (20 year paraplegics) that we had to turn away the truly acutely ill. We also had one paraplegic young man shot while robbing a convenience store (he was on active duty at the time, so this was considered service connected). I’m not even mentioning the current scandal about falsified wait times, while those in charge gave themselves performance awards.

Workman’s compensation: Who could argue with compensating an honest workman for a disabling injury suffered on the job? Read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair about life in the Chicago Stockyards a century ago if you don’t agree. Then there was the Rerat law firm (no kidding) specializing in suing the Burlington Northern Railway for injuries. This leads into example #3

Disability: Disabled people should be supported by the society at large. Who would disagree. I got an early taste in the service from ’68 – ’70 doing medical boards. No problem for the war injured to get disability. But then there were the general officers about to retire, whom the system somehow found barely able to function. Then look at the scandal at the Long Island Railroad, where for a time, a corrupt group of union officials and docs made sure nearly 100% of retirees were 100% disabled. See

The real problem is with Social Security Disability payments. Here the frauds and grafters were basically stealing from my disabled MS, muscular dystrophy, stroke patients. These are people who truly need the money. I thought the system would bankrupt from them. But apparently it hasn’t.

There are 3 excellent systemic ideas which have been significantly corrupted by the people using it.

So my dad was right and my uncle, a man of the Left was wrong.

They’re both gone now, my dad at 100, my uncle at 94. Uncle Irv wouldn’t like why I’m now coming around to his position — it is the system (at least in some cases).

What changed my mind? Venezuela. This is a country sitting on the largest proven reserves of oil, which has begun to import oil. It should be fabulously rich, now that the leader is ruling by decree for the poor and downtrodden. It is one of 3 countries in the world rationing food. There is no excuse for this — no US embargo (Cuba), no war fought on its soil in the past 100 years (North Korea).

It must be the system there. Sorry uncle Irv, it’s your system not dad’s.

Conservatives sometimes bash the left for being unpatriotic. Not uncle Irv — he was at the battle of Kasserine pass in North Africa, and the battle of the Bulge in Europe, and is at rest in a military cemetery.

The way it ought to be

A recent paper described the use of sulforaphane in treating autism [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 15550 – 15555 ’14 ] A sulforaphane trial (double blind, randomized) on 44 men age 13 – 27 with moderate to severe Autism Spectrum Disorder received sulforaphane (50 – 150 micoMoles) for 18 weeks followed by 4 weeks without treatment. There was no change in the 15 placebo patients, while there was a 33% decline in the Aberrant Behavior Checklist scores. When the sulforaphane was stopped total scores rose toward pretreatment levels.

I had posted on sulforaphane before — see the end of this post. I wrote the lead author asking if some of the therapeutic effects could be due to the anti-androgen activity of sulforaphane. He wrote back in a few days.

“Sorry, I missed your email. Absolutely possible. We did not measure androgen levels, but will do so in the future.
Thank you so much.”

Contrast this to the absent responses on whether the subjects in two functional MRI studies of the default network were asleep. See

Vegetarians are wimps: Science now tells us why

Oh, it started innocently enough. Population studies had shown that men who ate lots of cruciferous vegetables (collard greens, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy etc. etc.) had less prostate cancer. Some folks in Oregon decided to find out why [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 106 pp. 16663 – 16668 ’09 ]. One of the compounds found in all these veggies is sulforaphane. There are all sorts of places to be found on the web that will sell it to you for your health. Sulforaphane is said to fight cancer, improve diabetes and kill bacteria (if you believe Wikipedia). Hosanna.

Prostate cancer is made worse by male hormones (androgens). They produce their effects in cells by binding to a protein (the androgen receptor) which then goes into the nucleus of the cell and turns on the genes which make males male. If there’s no androgen around the receptor just sits there outside the nucleus (e.g. in the cytoplasm), doing nothing. Some forms of prostate cancer have mutations in the receptor which turn it on whether androgen is present or not. This makes the cancer even worse. So one of the mainstays of prostate cancer therapy is lowering androgen levels by a variety of means, none of them pleasant — such as castration and various pills.

The Oregon work shows that sulforaphane decreases the amount of androgen receptor around resulting in less androgenic effects, and presumably less prostate cancer in the long run. How this is thought to occur is pretty interesting, highly technical and is to be found in subsequent paragraphs. It also explains why vegetarians are such wimps.

The androgen receptor sits in the cytoplasm bound to a protein called HSP90 (heat shock protein of 90 kiloDaltons). This protects the androgen receptor from being destroyed. Sulforaphane is a fairly simple molecule — a straight 4 carbon chain with a methyl sulfoxide group at one end and an isothiocyanate (-N=C=S ) group at the other. It should be pretty lipid soluble, meaning it can go everywhere in the body without much trouble. The authors showed that sulforaphane inhibits an enzyme called histone deacetylase 2 (HDAC2). This results in more acetylation of HSP90 on lysine, inhibiting the association of HSP90 with the androgen receptor, leading to increased destruction of the receptor and less androgenic effects in the cell.

The active site of one histone deacetylase that we know about is a tubular pocket containing a zinc binding site and two aspartic acid histidine charge relay systems. My guess is that the business end of sulforaphane is the isothiocyanate, which could react by nucleophilic attack of either the histidine nitrogen or the aspartic acid oxygen on the carbon of the -N=C=S group. Perhaps one of readers knows how it works.

Histone deacetylase inhibitors are presently very ‘hot’ and one of them, SAHA was approved by the FDA for the treatment of T cell cutaneous lymphoma in 2007, and many others are under active investigation. It’s important to remember that although this class of enzymes was discovered by their ability to remove acetyl groups from histones, they also remove acetyl groups from proteins which are not histones (e.g. HSP90).

So veggies are a two-edged sword.

Just because a receptor is there doesn’t mean it’s doing anything

Normally when we see a receptor on the surface of a cell (such as the receptor for Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor — VEGF) we assume that when its ligand binds, something happens inside the cell. Not always so, says Cell vol. 159 pp. 473 – 474, 584 – 596 ’14. VEGF is crucial in fetal development (inactivation of just one of the two copies of the gene is lethal for the mouse embryo [ PNAS vol. 95 pp. 14389 – 14394 98 ]).

One of the problems in diabetic retinopathy is proliferation of retinal blood vessels. For those who don’t already know — light outside the eye has to pass through all 10 cellular layers of the retina before it hits the photoreceptors which can absorb it. So more vessels in the neuronal layers isn’t good.

The Cell paper shows that in the developing retina, VEGF is depleted near neurons, by neuronal engulfment of the VEGF/VEGF receptor complex and degradation. The complex doesn’t do anything metabolically to the neuron. This prevents misdirected angiogenesis into the neuronal plane.

This turns what we’ve always thought about receptors on the cell surface on its head — they must be doing something inside the cell, when a ligand binds to them. Apparently not always.

Another financial piety bites the dust

If only businesses looked past the next quarterly earnings report all would be well. Productivity and profits would increase if CEOs would think long term. Investors hunger for such thinking.

Well, a large firm with earnings that beat analysts estimate by over 5% did that exactly yesterday and the stock dropped 6% today, Revenue rose 59%, but costs rose 41%.

The head, a brash youngster spoke saying that the ‘company’s long-term goals stretch more than a decade into the future and require “investing aggressively”.

Yes, this happened to Facebook. So much for the long term view

Ebola — an update (25 Oct ’14)

The experiment of nature referred to in a previous post ( when Amber Vinson, a nurse who had helped care for a fatal case of Ebola, took a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas the day she became symptomatic with Ebola is almost over. She was diagnosed 14 October, the day she took the flight, and so far no one on the flight has become ill (presumably the 100+ or so are under surveillance).

However, another experiment of Nature has just begun. An M. D. who’d been in Africa treating Ebola victims was diagnosed with it on the 23rd. He had returned to NYC from Africa 14 October and had been up and about in the city. According to the Times he began to feel sluggish the evening of the 21st, went all over the city on the 22nd, including a 3 mile jog on the west side, and noted a mild temperature (100.3 not 103 as initially reported) the morning of the 23rd — reported it immediately and was hospitalized the same day. New York City chastened by the disastrous response to the first case in Texas, sent 3 guys in Hazmat suits to his apartment to pick the doctor up, according to the NYT of 26 October. Some contacts, such as his fiancee are easy to trace, the people he rode with on the subway are not.

The incubation period is said to be no more than 21 days, so neither experiment of nature is truly over. From this case we now know the incubation period can be as short as 7 – 9 days.

As noted in the previous post — The genome of Ebola is RNA which mutates much more rapidly than DNA genomes. It does this so quickly that at death from AIDS (another RNA virus), there are so many viral variants present that the infecting ensemble is called a quasiSpecies. With a large population infected in Africa there is more Ebola virus extant than at any time in the past.

We have a small handle on just how fast the virus is mutating [ Science vol. 345 pp. 1369 – 1372 ’14 (12 Sep ’14) ]. This is a report of 98 virus genomes from 78 patients from Sierra Leone (all this year). The Ebola genome contains 18,959 to 18,961 nucleotides and codes for at least 7 proteins. Compared to all previously known Ebola genome sequences, the virus from Sierra Leone contains 341 fixed changes (e.g. the changes were present in every virus they sequenced). The changes were present in all 7 proteins.

It isn’t clear (to me) from reading the paper how much variation in the viral genome there is (1) in a given individual (2) between individuals. Note that all samples were obtained from late May to early June this year, so the work is a good baseline.

Why is this scary? Because, as is typical for a virus with a genome made of RNA, Ebola is mutating rapidly. This means that we can’t be sure that its incubation characteristics, or its ability to spread from human to human will remain constant.

Producing the paper, required lots of collaboration between people in the USA and Africa, so there are 58 co-authors of the paper. Showing just how bad the disease is five of the fifty-eight co-authors died of Ebola. R. I. P. Mohamed Fullah, Mbalu Fonnie, Alex Moigboi, Alice Kovoma, S. Humarr Khan.

Who said this?

“You have to take care of all the sectors in —- as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in —– who earn less than $1,800 a month.”

The present system serves to “insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies.”

Clue: It is not a Republican dinosaur or the Koch brothers.

No it’s the Beijing-appointed leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying as reported 2 days ago in the New York Times —

Amazing isn’t it? Well, perhaps not. In March 2013 my wife and I saw Bentley dealerships in Beijing. In the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong, there appeared to be one high end jewelry store (Cartier, etc. etc.) per block.

What’s a fellow-traveller to do?

Watching electrons being pushed

Would any organic chemist like to watch electrons moving around in a molecule? Is the Pope Catholic? Attosecond laser pulses permit this [ Science vol. 346 pp. 336 – 339 ’14 ]. An attosecond is 10^-18 seconds. The characteristic vibrational motion of atoms in chemical bonds occurs at the femtosecond scale (10^-15 seconds). An electron takes 150 attoseconds to orbit a hydrogen atom [ Nature vol. 449 p. 997 ’07 ]. Of course this is macroscopic thinking at the quantum level, a particular type of doublethink indulged in by chemists all the time —

The technique involves something called pump probe spectroscopy. Here was the state of play 15 years ago — [ Science vol. 283 pp. 1467 – 1468 ’99 ] Using lasers it is possible to blast in a short duration (picoseconds 10^-12 to femtoseconds 10^-15) pulse of energy (pump pulse ) at one frequency (usually ultraviolet so one type of bond can be excited) and then to measure absorption at another frequency (usually infrared) a short duration later (to measure vibrational energy). This allows you to monitor the formation and decay of reactive intermediates produced by the pump (as the time between pump and probe is varied systematically).

Time has marched on and we now have lasers capable of producing attosecond pulses of electromagnetic energy (e.g. light).

A single optical cycle of visible light of 6000 Angstrom wavelength lasts 2 femtoseconds. To see this just multiply the reciprocal of the speed of light (3 * 10^8 meters/second) by the wavelength (6 * 10^3 *10^-10). To get down to the attosecond range you must use light of a shorter wavelength (e.g. the ultraviolet or vacuum ultraviolet).

The paper didn’t play around with toy molecules like hydrogen. They blasted phenylalanine with UV light. Here’s what they said “Here, we present experimental evidence of ultrafast charge dynamics in the amino acid phenylalanine after prompt ionization induced by isolated attosecond pulses. A probe pulse then produced a doubly charged molecular fragment by ejection of a second electron, and charge migration manifested itself as a sub-4.5-fs oscillation in the yield of this fragment as a function of pump-probe delay. Numerical simulations of the temporal evolution of the electronic wave packet created by the attosecond pulse strongly support the interpretation of the experimental data in terms of charge migration resulting from ultrafast electron dynamics preceding nuclear rearrangement.”

OK, they didn’t actually see the electron dynamics but calculated it to explain their results. It’s the Born Oppenheimer approximation writ large.

You are unlikely to be able to try this at home. It’s more physics than I know, but here’s the experimental setup. ” In our experiments, we used a two-color, pump-probe technique. Charge dynamics were initiated by isolated XUV sub-300-as pulses, with photon energy in the spectral range between 15 and 35 eV and probed by 4-fs, waveform-controlled visible/near infrared (VIS/NIR, central photon energy of 1.77 eV) pulses (see supplementary materials).”

The incredible information economy of frameshifting

Her fox and dog ate our pet rat

H erf oxa ndd oga teo urp etr at

He rfo xan ddo gat eou rpe tra t

The last two lines make no sense at all, but (neglecting the spaces) they have identical letter sequences.

Here are similar sequences of nucleotides making up the genetic code as transcribed into RNA




Again, in our genome there are no spaces between the triplets. But all the triplets you see are meaningful in the sense that they each code for one of the twenty amino acids (except for TAA which says stop). ATG codes for methionine (the purists will note that all the T’s should be U). I’m too lazy to look the rest up, but the ribosome doesn’t care, and will happily translate all 3 sequences into the sequential amino acids of a protein.

Both sets of sequences have undergone (reading) frame shifts.

A previous post marveled about how something too small even to be called a virus coded for a protein whose amino acids were read in two different frames.

Frameshifting is used by viruses to get more mileage out of their genomes. Why? There is only so much DNA you can pack into the protein coat (capsids) of a virus.

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 14675 – 14680 ’14 ] Usually DNA density in cell nuclei or bacteria is 5 – 10% of volume. However, in viral capsids it is 55% of volume. The pressure inside the viral capsid can reach ten atmospheres. Ejection is therefore rapid (60,000 basepairs/second).

The AIDS virus (HIV1) relies on frame shifting of its genome to produce viable virus. The genes for two important proteins (gag and pol) have 240 nucleotides (80 amino acids) in common. Frameshifting occurs to allow the 240 nucleotides to be read by the cell’s ribosomes in two different frames (not at once). Granted that there are 61 3 nucleotide combinations to code for only 20 amino acids, so some redundancy is built in, but the 80 amino acids coded by the two frames are usually quite different.

That the gag and pol proteins function at all is miraculous.

The phenomenon is turning out to be more widespread. [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. E4342 – E4349 ’14 ] KSHV (Kaposi’s Sarcoma HerpesVirus) causes (what else?) Kaposi’s sarcoma, a tumor quite rare until people with AIDS started developing it (due to their lousy immune system being unable to contend with the virus). Open reading frame 73 (ORF73) codes for a major latency associated nuclear antigen 1 (LANA1). It has 3 domains a basic amino terminal region, an acidic central repeat region (divisible into CR1, CR2 and CR3) and another basic carboxy terminal region. LANA1 is involved in maintaning KSHV episomes, regulation of viral latency, transcriptional regulation of viral and cellular genes.

LANA1 is made of multiple high and lower molecular weight isoforms — e.g. a LANA ladder band pattern seen in immunoblotting.

This work shows that LANA1 (and also Epstein Barr Nuclear antigen 1` ) undergo highly efficient +1 and -2 programmed frameshifting, to generate previously undescribed alternative reading frame proteins in their repeat regions. Programmed frameshifting to generate multiple proteins from one RNA sequence can increase coding capacity, without increasing the size of the viral capsid.

The presence of similar repeat sequences in human genes (such as huntingtin — the defective gene in Huntington’s chorea) implies that we should look for frame shifting translation in ourselves as well as in viruses. In the case of mutant huntingtin frame shifting in the abnormally expanded CAG tracts rproduces proteins containing polyAlanine or polySerineArginine tracts.

Well G, A , T and C are the 1’s and 0’s of the way genetic information is stored in our genomic computer. It really isn’t surprising that the genome can be read in alternate frames. In the old days, textual information in bytes had parity bits to make sure the 1’s and 0’s were read in the correct frame. There is nothing like that in our genome (except for the 3 stop codons).

What is truly suprising it that reading in alternate frame produces ‘meaningful’ proteins. This gets us into philosophical waters. Clearly

Erf oxa ndd oga teo urp etr at

Rfo xan ddo gat eou rpe tra t

aren’t meaningful to us. Yet gag and pol are quite meaningful (even life and death meaningful) to the AIDS virus. So meaningful in the biologic sense, means able to function in the larger context of the cell. That really is the case for linguistic meaning. You have to know a lot about the world (and speak English) for the word cat to be meaningful to you. So meaning can never be defined by the word itself. Probably the same is true for concepts as well, but I’ll leave that to the philosophers, or any who choose to comment on this.

An experiment of nature

Yesterday’s post concerned the fact that 2 nurses taking care of a patient in Texas had been infected (presumably even after taking all the recommended precautions). Given that, I was concerned about the possibility of airborne spread.

Bryan wrote in to say the following:

“It seems doubtful airborne spread was involved. Remember, the Texas patient was initially sent home after showing symptoms, yet none of his family members were infected. Only those health workers directly involved in his care (and thus exposed to infected bodily fluids) have been infected, consistent with the idea that the disease can be transmitted only though contact with infected bodily fluids.”

I certainly hope he is right.

In something right out a novel, the possibility of airborne spread is now going to be empirically tested, as one of the two infected nurses flew to Cleveland, and then back to Texas in the 24 hours prior to her diagnosis. She apparently had a slight fever on boarding. So 100+ people were in a confined space with her for a few hours.

It’s why I don’t read fiction — reality is far more fantastic than anything writers can produce.

One more bizarre development. Here in Massachusetts, legislators today are scheduled to hear about the readiness of the state’s hospitals to handle Ebola. Amazingly, they will only get input from hospital CEOs. No nurses, thank you. Naturally the nurses are pissed as they should be (and so should you if you live in the state). If there were ever a time to hear from boots on the ground about Ebola readiness, it is now.

Addendum 17 Oct ’14

The Obama administration has just appointed a former chief of staff for former vice-president Gore and present vice-president Biden as the “Ebola czar”. Presumably, not for his medical expertise but for his ability to coordinate various governmental agencies, which was hardly the problem in the CDC’s response to the Texas cases. Hopefully, this will not be another case of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” but I’m not optimistic —

Now for some molecular biology. The genome of Ebola is RNA which mutates much more rapidly than DNA genomes. It does this so quickly that at death from AIDS (another RNA virus), there are so many viral variants present that the infecting ensemble is called a quasiSpecies. With a large population infected in Africa there is more Ebola virus extant than at any time in the past. There is some reason to hope that natural selection for a more transmissible form of Ebola in the large infected human population will not occur (the AIDS virus hasn’t become more infectious over the years). This is only a hope.


This morning (15 October) it was announced that a second health care worker at the Texas hospital where an ebola patient died has ‘tested positive’ for it. If ebola can spread in a hospital environment where presumably precautions were taken, once it gets out into the populace at large it can spread much faster. This had to be human to human transmission — no other animal vector is involved (as it probably is in Africa).

How does it spread? We don’t know, but the two Texas cases probably imply that airborne spread is possible.

What to do?

In our case it means not getting into a confined space with over 100 people we don’t know from all over the world for an 8 – 16 hour period (e.g. an international flight). Have you ever been on a flight where no one had a cold?

For the USA, it should mean banning all flights from endemic countries. This has been the case in the past. My cousin’s wife has a lot of relatives in Brazil, because the people on the boat had lots of pink eye, and the boat was simply turned away over 100 years ago.

It should mean caring for Ebola patients in specialized facilities where only they are cared for –e.g. not in a general hospital since we don’t know how it spreads.

The greatest way to spread the disease (the Hajj — millions of people from all over the world crowded together for days followed by worldwide dispersal) has mercifully just ended before the disease escaped Africa to any extent.

Will ISIS or Al-Qaeda try to bring Ebola to the USA? Of course.

We live in a society where children have supervised play dates, and where walking unattended to school is almost considered child abuse. What will happen to such a risk-averse society when there is actual risk to going out to (the mall, the school, to work)?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 69 other followers