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The ongoing debate over shark fin soup continues in California with proposed legislation which aims to curtail the import of fins and prevent the brutal practice of “finning”. Currently, it is illegal to bring in sharks without the fins, but a loophole exists which allows for the import of fins from countries such as China and Mexico, where animal protection legislation is lax or non-existent. If passed, California would join Hawaii in the efforts to prevent shark fins from making it into the soup bowl.  The New York Times recently reported on the issue from California, bringing to light many different viewpoints from the Asian community.

I admire many of the opinions expressed by many of the first generation Americans quoted in this article. It is hard to go against family tradition, especially notoriously traditional Asian families. The concerns they express – environmental and ethical – are backed by science and fact. Finning is cruel and wasteful. Finning not only causes the pain of amputation but also condemns the animal to die slowly, either from suffocation or from being defenselessly picked apart by opportunistic scavengers. Ecologically, the removal of the top ocean predator would be devastating in terms of balance.

In contrast, many of the arguments put forth by their elders seem petty if not downright foolish – the notion that we should be free to eat whatever we want, whatever the cost; the idea that tips for waiters would decrease without shark fins for soup; and so on. Pitted against damning evidence that the shark populations is on the brink of disaster, it is hard to find any respect for this viewpoint.

Many groups have used “culture” as reasons for continuing destructive practices – usually in relation to hunting and eating. The whale hunt is another example. Though perhaps less vicious and less wasteful, it ignores the fact that we are still willfully eating species into extinction. We forget that our technological advances and our incredible ability to kill and destroy efficiently has far outstripped that of our long ago ancestors. And for what? A small bowl of soup, gained at the expense of an animal left to die for lack of appendages?

I love Carl Zimmer.  I think he’s one of those people who just really get it… and not only does he get it, but he explains things in a way that makes other people get it.

Recently, he published an article on the Loom discussing whales and cancer, based around a recent review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.  The basic premise of cancer works like this:

  • Over time, cells make mistakes in DNA replication
  • Mistakes accumulate and eventually, mistakes will affect some vital process
  • This causes cancer

This stands to reason then, that the more cells you have and the longer you live, the more mistakes you will have, and the higher likelihood that you will have cancer.

But if you looked at blue whales, they’re HUGE.  They have a lot of cells and they can live a long time.  Indeed, according to calculations, half of all blue whales should have colorectal cancer.  By the time they reach middle age, ALL of them should be cancer-ridden.  And that’s only one type of cancer!

However, this is not the case.  Indeed, across all studied species, including humans with our often-poor health choices, cancer occurs at a rate of about 30%.  So mice, with their rapid metabolism and short life spans, get cancer at the same rate as whales, with their much slower metabolism and longer life spans.

This suggests that larger animals have evolved mechanisms against cancer that have held it at the approximately 30% mark – regardless of cell number, age or size, which is contradictory to the current paradigms of cancer as a statistical inevitability.  And if that is so, we would be better off studying how larger animals cope with cancer rather than looking at cancer in mice.

That is not to say that we should suddenly be breeding captive whales for laboratory-style research – but so little is known about the health of these animals in the first place, despite the popularity of sea mammals as aquarium entertainment.  A well sequenced genome would be the first informative step – The authors suggest studying the genome to look at differences in cancer defenses among related species with a wide range of sizes, such as whales and dolphins.  Learning more about their health and biology of these animals may yield interesting new avenues in both human health research and animal veterinary medicine.

Zimmer ends his article eloquently:

“But such an undertaking would have to overcome a lot of inertia in the world of cancer research. Cancer biologists don’t look to big animals as models to study–which is one reason there’s not a single fully-sequenced genome of a whale or a dolphin for scientists to look at. For most cancer researchers, mice are the animals of choice.

But if we want to find inspiration for cancer-fighting medicines, mice are the last animal we’d want to consider. It’s like learning how to play baseball from a bench-cooler at a Little League game, when Willie Mays is waiting to dispense his wisdom.”

Again, find the original article at The Loom.

Vacations are over-rated

If I were a boxer, there would be some damn epic music playing right now because… I’m baaaaack!  🙂

After a 2 month hiatus, I’m feeling the itch again, as yes, I do have more stuff to say about science and damn it, people are going to listen!  Or at least read and perhaps click on a link once in a while.  I was also partially inspired to come back due to my impending employment in a microbiology lab doing bioinformatics work over the summer. I’m really excited about this opportunity and hopefully I’ll be learning lots.

While I have not been writing for AlbinoMouse, I have been busy writing!  Please check out my current venture, The Outlier Model.  It’s a blog written with my partner about personal finance and living simply.  I’ve also been writing for the Stem Cell Network on homing and attraction in hematopoietic stem cells and news and events in ESC policy.  I’ll be updating AlbinoMouse more regularly again, so please come back and visit.

Cheers – I missed you!

After a busy holidays and a busy return to the working world, I am finally back to writing!  The fact that I seem to have broken my space key on my laptop did not help to speed my return nor did my habit of picking up more work than I can handle.  But here I am and now I have some good and bad news.

When I first started AlbinoMouse, I hoped to accomplish several things:

  1. Establish myself as a writer
  2. Re-connect with the things I love about science

I think I accomplished Point #1 .  I was able to get a job with a reputable blog and well as writing gigs several other sites.  For that alone I am grateful.  I always wanted to be a writer, but let myself be convinced that science was a good career path.

And when we’re all finished laughing…

Point #2… ehhhhhh.  For a while, I was really enjoying pushing out a few posts a week and having lots of visitors to my site.  But then, like my first go-around with science, I just got bogged down with the drama, the sheer stupidity of some of the things I read, and the fact that I was again, bored.

So AlbinoMouse is going on a bit of a holiday.  I may update the site and I may not – I don’t want to set anything in stone, but at the same time, I can’t promise regular content. I will still be on Twitter!

In fact, I’m starting a new blog venture!  It’s going to be a multi-faceted blog and yet, in many ways it will be more focused than AlbinoMouse was.   I’m going to stick with writing  about the things I’m passionate about and I hope many of you will be curious enough to follow me and find out where I end up.

Cheers!

Merry Christmas all!

It’s Christmas Eve here in rainy Vancouver and I will be finishing up a day at work before heading out for dinner.  I would like to thank everyone who’s been reading and supporting my blog over the last year.  We’ve gone from having 3-5 reads a day to over 50 unique reads per day!  I’m so grateful for all the support and I hope to continue the momentum through the New Year.

Be safe, as Christmas and New Years are apparently scientifically validated risk factors for death (thanks to Discover | Discoblog).

Drink wine, but not too much, and be sure to do it socially.

And though you may not believe it, your family and friends can help you live longer , so leave behind the fakes, the liars, and the unfaithful.

Merry Christmas, and happy holidays to everyone!

Updates Dec19-Dec25

I’ve been a bad blogger and have not been writing nearly as much as I should. 😦

This week and a bit has probably been one of my most unproductive since the summer, and for that I’m sorry. I’m a bit burned out I think with much writing, both coding and blogging. Hopefully a few days off at Christmas will recharge my batteries!

News the past week and a bit:

  • Shameless self-promotion: My latest blog is up on the Stem Cell Network and recaps the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology.  Please check it out!
  • Earlier this year, Metropolis records released “Electronic Saviors”, a 4 CD collection of industrial music to benefit cancer research and patients.  On December 4, they presented the Foundation for Cancer Research and Wellness with a check for over $22k.  Angry music does solve problems!
  • It received limited coverage, earning only a brief mention in Scientific American, but this past Tuesday, the US Senate finally passed the Shark Conservation Act which bans the practice of taking fins from live sharks.  Shark fins are prized in soups and other delicacies, and unfortunately, many countries which profit from the trade still permit shark finning to occur despite the fragile state of many shark populations.  This is a long overdue step in the right direction.

I’m really going to try to push some posts out in the next few days.  Can’t say much more than that, as I have a crap load of stuff on my to-do list!  Stay tuned…

Overview of ASH 2010

From Dec 4-7, hematologists, scientists and trainees from around the world gathered in sunny Orlando Florida to discuss the latest in blood diseases and research. Over these three days, the Orange County Convention Centre was host to two poster sessions, presentations from clinical and academic leaders, and an impressive array of exhibitors.

I arrived late December 2 nd and spent the 3 rd shopping and exploring. Orlando is an odd place, with very little “natural” about it. Manicured lawns and carefully arrayed palm trees are the norm. Hotels and restaurants tempt the tourist crowds with ponds of koi, the fish sweltering in the heat and cooled down with influxes of cold water. It is a car city, with stores, hotels, and amenities spread far apart and divided by 6+ lanes of traffic. But it was bright, sunny and warm, and for that, I tried to overlook the funny taste of the water and the supreme lack of fresh food.

Things got going on Saturday with some sessions and breakfast talks already well on their way from as early as 7am. Exhibits opened at 10am sharp. Big Pharma was high in attendance, with appearances from Pfizer, Roche, Johnson and Johnson, and Genentech, to name only a few. Each company tried to out-do each other with high end “hospitality bars” which served gourmet snacks and coffee. Current clinical trials in the areas of leukemia/ myeloma diseases were highly touted, as well as advances in stem cell transplant techniques.

Over the next two days, there were scientific sessions and special lectures around the clock –far too many to attend, much less write about. There was a clear focus on clinical treatments and outcomes, not surprising when ASH caters primarily to clinicians. There were also a surprising number of studies on the usages of cord blood -a growing area for business and medicine. One special lecture of note was the Ham Wasserman lecture on stem cell mobility and homing. I will be writing about this topic in an upcoming Stem Cell Network blog! A few other lectures were interesting, mostly relating to genetic aspects of blood diseases, and I may touch on these topics in later posts.

I was a little disappointed in the poster sessions. Many posters did not have people available to answer questions, which sort of defeated the purpose of having a dedicated poster session. The food was also set up terribly, forcing people to line up even if they just wanted a bit of cheese and bread to nibble with their drink. On Sunday, I had the privilege of attending the President’s Reception, held in the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody is probably best described as a whole hearted attempt at grandiose elegance. I nearly had a heart attack when I entered the reception and saw that most people were seated –I went to the event knowing a grand total of ONE person. It didn’t help when the bartender asked me for ID. But, I eventually got connected with people, had some amazing food (though I didn’t eat as much as I would have liked, definitely the best food I had in Orlando!), and the open bar didn’t hurt either.

Post reception, I had drinks at Rocks, the hotel bar, where I learned that the hotel maintains a cache of special ducks which it parades out front once per day. Huh. Monday, I’ll be honest –I did very little. I was too lazy to get lunch so I grabbed food at the convention centre which subsequently made me violently ill. I have never been so happy to pack up and get to the airport!