November 14, 2011

The Hindu-Hegde blunder ...

The other day I had an interesting exchange of emails with a friend about science writing and science communication. I've always felt that I can and should do it, but never really got around doing it. While he, who is a prolific blogger and has already written about variety of subjects, advised me to start writing, because there is no other way to figure out whether one can do a good job at it. Within a day, I get another email from him, asking me to check out an article, which he felt was misleading. I could see that in his own way he was trying to get me to start writing. Smart man! His move totally worked, as soon as I read a first few lines of that article. So, I thank my friend, for the much required push and begin my rant.

The Hindu, an Indian English-language daily newspaper, published by The Hindu Group, published an 'Open Page' article written by Prof. B. M. Hegde, under their 'Opinion' section on October 22, 2011. The article is titled, very non-conspicuously as-  'The way to get man back on his feet'. To say that the article is roughly about modern western medicine vs. eastern alternative therapies, would be a total injustice to the absolute thrashing this article deserves! Astonishingly, Prof. Hegde is a former professor of cardiology, Middlesex Hospital Medical School, University of London and former Vice-Chancellor, Manipal University.

At the very top of the page, two lines sum up the article as-
"Time has come to abandon the disease era of medicine. We have to concentrate on the whole human organism for the future management of altered physiologies."
Two harmless lines. At first look, you start to think, may be the author is pointing towards Personalized medicine, Vaccinomics (personalized vaccines), or Targeted gene therapies, when he says "Time has come to abandon the disease era of medicine." But, he isn't. In fact, far from it. There is nothing wrong with this statement, except its context. In fact, current medical research has already taken the direction towards personalized medicine, trying to break away from the "disease era of medicine". Further information on personalized medicine, Vaccinomics, etc. can be found in an in-depth report published by Scientific American, titled "Personalized Medicine in the Genomic Era".

In terms of European history (generally, western history), the so called "disease era" finds its roots in the Renaissance period (1400-1700). In ancient Rome and Greece, during this period, with the revival of ideas related to- culture, art, science and medicine, physicians began to learn more about the human body. Andreas Vesalius and Leonardo Da Vinci dissected human bodies and made the first anatomical drawings. As the understanding of the body increased, so did the development of new medicines. As new continents were explored, and trade between different parts of the world increased, it allowed the global spread of disease. This often had devastating effects as whole populations were exposed to pathogens against which they had no natural immunity. Bubonic plague moved along trade routes from China and killed more than a third of Europe's population. So, the physicians from that period onwards developed medicine in order to combat these deadly diseases by discovering new vaccines, new pharmaceutical and surgical treatments.

When disease became the focus of Western medicine in the 19th and early 20th century, the
average life expectancy was 47 years (1) and most clinical encounters were for acute illnesses (2). Today, the average life expectancy in developed countries is 74 years and increasing, and most clinical encounters are for chronic illnesses or nondisease-specific complaints (3,4). So, with this background, I agree with the fact that the time has come to abandon disease as the primary focus of medical care. An article written by Mary E. Tinetti (M.D.) and Terri Fried (M.D.), titled "The End of the Disease Era" (PMID: 14749162) discussed this very point in further details and the information given in this paragraph were taken from that same article.

Instead of such logical arguments, Prof. Hegde uses this line as a 'catch phrase' of sorts and removes it completely from its context, by shoving nonsensical statements such as- “There is no science of man” and “This world is immaterial - mental and spiritual”, albeit of other authors, down readers' throats.

At first, from what he says in the summary- "We have to concentrate on the whole human organism for the future management of altered physiologies.", to a more rational (and considerate) mind, it may seem that he could be pointing towards use of 'Systems theory' principles in Biology, when he talks about "holistic approach". And yet again, to the utter disappointment of that rational mind, he absolutely is not! Rather he prefers to talk about "healing with right frequencies of electromagnetic energy", "energy channels in the human body", and "use of quantum physics in eastern medicine". His frequent use of the term "Quantum physics" with respect to most absurd and inappropriate contexts, takes form of statements like- "The human body is but the human mind in an illusory solid shape." His abysmal attempt of relating Indian vedic concepts such as "Advaita Vedānta" with more modern, western concepts of "Quantum physics" is laughable to say the least.

This author's insistence upon 'holistic medicine', 'alternative therapies', 'eastern philosophy', 'quantum physics' etc. reminds me of Fritjof Capra and his work, specially 'Uncommon Wisdom (1988)'. In his books, Capra, an Austrian-born American physicist, goes to great lengths in trying to put across his thoughts, opinions and experiences about above mentioned topics, as well as other topics such as 'feminism' etc. Capra's thinking process, style of writing and an open stance is such that even if a hardcore rationalist disagrees with his views, at least he/she recognizes that there is a sound method in Capra's madness. On the other hand, Prof. Hegde fails miserably in the absence of a method or a solid foundation of any sorts and proves that his is just madness and nothing else!

The author quotes “There is no science of man,” wrote Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrel in his celebrated book 'Man, the Unknown'. This is probably the best example from this entire article, of how greatly uninformed Prof. Hegde really is. Let us for a brief moment look at who Alexis Carrel was. Alexis Carrel was a French surgeon and biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for pioneering vascular suturing techniques. He invented the first perfusion pump with Charles A. Lindbergh, opening the way to organ transplantation. Carrel advocated the use of gas chambers to rid humanity of "inferior stock", thus endorsing the scientific racism discourse. He was a proponent of implementing a regime of enforced eugenics. His endorsement of this idea began in the mid-1930s, prior to the Nazi implementation of such practices in Germany. His book 'Man, The Unknown' (L'Homme, cet inconnu) published in 1935, which became a best-seller, contained his own social prescriptions, advocating, in part, that mankind could better itself by following the guidance of an elite group of intellectuals, and by implementing a regime of enforced eugenics. Carrel claimed the existence of a "hereditary biological aristocracy" and argued that "deviant" human types should be suppressed using techniques similar to those later employed by the Nazis. In this light, I'd think ten times before referring to Carrel's above mentioned quote, to make sure I understand the exact context surrounding it.

His states-
"Modern medicine, even today, nearly 85 years after the death of conventional science following Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, is buried in the linear science of Newtonian Physics which believes that man is made up of matter, which follows certain deterministic predictability patterns."
Here, what he refers to as 'Newtonian physics' and 'linear science', are more acceptedly known as 'Classical Mechanics' and 'Cartesian Coordinate system', respectively. Any statement that includes fancy terms such as- "Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle", may appear intellectual and could prove to be one, provided those terms are used appropriately. Yet again, Prof. Hegde, does not fail to disappoint with an award-wining misuse of "Uncertainty Principle". What he's trying to suggest is that the modern medicine should have somehow changed because "conventional science" died after Heisenberg discovered the "Uncertainty Principle".  That's illogical. Perhaps, he is not aware of domains of validity within which the two theories operate. "Classical Mechanics" can be applied to those objects that are far larger than 1 nano-meter in size and that move with speed far less than the speed of light; whereas, "Quantum Mechanics" can be applied to those objects that are far smaller than 1 nano-meter in size and that move with speed far less than the speed of light. For quantum mechanics, this definition is partly true, since all objects around us are made up of atoms and molecules. The manifestation of the observable effects of quantum properties vary from mico- to macro- level. In fact, Prof. V. Balakrishnan, from IIT Madras, sums up the Heisenberg's uncertainty principle quite neatly in his lecture on 'Introduction to Quantum Physics' - "The uncertainty principle is a fundamental property of quantum systems, not a statement about the observational strength of current technology." So, in summary, whether study of human physiology is based on classical or quantum mechanics is really determined by the scale at which the observations are made. For a researcher who studies regeneration of human liver, consideration of quantum properties is of no use and on the other hand for a biophysicist, studying the properties of protein molecules in solvents such as water, certain effects that may present themselves as manifestations of quantum properties of those molecules, may prove to be vital.

Today's modern medicine is a combination of both linear and non-linear science. For instance, human blood circulation is a good example of a non-linear system. It is very well understood and cared for by modern medicine. Also, his argument about "deterministic predictability patterns" is, in parts, a non-argument. Any dynamic system, although deterministic, is capable of exhibiting 'chaotic' behaviour without any involvement of random elements, provided it is highly sensitive to its initial conditions. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. In natural systems, 'weather' is a perfect example of a chaotic system. In 1975, a Franco-American mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, published a book called "The Fractal Geometry of Nature", which became a classic of chaos theory. In this book Mandelbrot enlists several examples of chaotic systems that exist in biological domain. He showed that the branching of the circulatory and bronchial systems fits a fractal model. In a 2009 EMBO article (PMID: 19927119), Aurélien Bancaud et. al. reveal the fractal organization of chromatin and explain why the dynamics of soluble nuclear proteins are affected independently of their size. These are just a few examples from biology that describe how even predictable systems can exhibit chaotic behaviours.

Author then goes on to state that -
"Human body is a colony of 50 trillion happy individual human cells that did exist as unicellular organisms for millions of years before getting together as this multicellular colony. "
Surely, Charles Darwin died a thousand miserable deaths all over again after reading this nincompoop's statement! He makes it sound as if all those 50 trillion individual human (?) cells spent their miserable lives alone in the dark, damp, primordial soup for millions of years, before suddenly deciding (!?) to live together happily ever after. What a mockery of human evolution!

Then he goes on to refer to the experiments performed by Fritz-Albert Popp, a German physicist, who was (supposedly) able to map out all the individual cells of a human body using his "biophoton" camera and stated that “health is a state where the cells are vibrating in sync with one another; disease is when they fall out of sync.” If only such a phenomenon was accurately measurable and reproducible! For instance, let us ponder over the possibility of such a phenomenon. For a "biophoton" camera to be used, you first need the healthy human cells to emit quantifiable amount of photons (yes, emit!) and the diseased cells to emit significantly less or more 'quanta' of photons than healthy cells, without subjecting them to any external stimuli. Biophoton, otherwise known as- ultraweak photon emission, low-level biological chemiluminescence, ultraweak bioluminescence, dark luminescence and other similar terms, is a photon of light emitted from a biological system as part of the general weak electromagnetic radiation of living biological cells. The typical detected magnitude of "biophotons" in the visible and ultraviolet spectrum ranges from a few up to several hundred photons per second per square centimeter of surface area, much weaker than in the openly visible and well-researched phenomenon of normal bioluminescence, but stronger than in the thermal, or black body radiation that so-called perfect black bodies demonstrate. It is proposed that Chemiexcitation via oxidative stress by reactive oxygen species(ROS) and/or catalysis by enzymes (i.e. peroxidase, lipoxygenase), which are common events in any biological system, can lead to the formation of triplet excited species, which release photons upon returning to a lower energy level in a process analogous to phosphorescence ("glow-in-the-dark"). So, at least in the theoretical realm, it is possible. But, it has nothing to do with the "holistic approach" or "synchronous vibrations" or "healing with right frequencies of electromagnetic energy". Because, even if we consider that this proposed theory could give reproducible results, the fact remains that the of generation of triplet excited species that supposedly give rise to a "biophoton", is a random and spontaneous event. Also, excited triplet species have intrinsically longer half lives than singlet species; so, from a "biophoton" perspective, their longer half-lives pose a constraint on the amount of energy they can emit while transiting to lower orbits. Diseased cells generate excess ROS and undergo cellular damage is well know fact in biology. The methods are measuring these elevated ROS levels and their effects are well established as well. But, what about healthy cells? They don't generate ROS in quantities significant enough to be detected with the help of "biophotons". In helthy cells it is proposed that since there is visible bioluminescence in many bacteria and other cells, it can be inferred that the (extremely small) number of photons in ultra-weak bioluminescence is a random by-product of cellular metabolism. And this is based on the fact that according to the laws of thermodynamics, the biochemical reactions undergo a series of energy states, so owing to some degree of randomness, these reactions may go thorugh some occasional, irregular steps or "outlying states" in which, due to physiochemical energy imbalance, a photon is emitted. This is worse than finding a needle in the haystack! I seriously doubt the detectability of these "biophotons" from healthy cells. So, I don't see any great advantage in looking at a well established fact using a weak, irreproducible, and unproven technique like "biophoton detection".
"Our old model had a linear structure which followed the Ford Motor style assembly line. If biochemical transmission failed between points A and B, the precursor chemical could accumulate at point A and point B will be depleted of it."
He should really check the year marked on his calendar. This model of biochemical reactions existed in 1980's and is now as outdated as the Royal family. With the advent of "Systems Biology", no sane biochemist today would dare make such a statement. The author then tries to "simplify" it with an even outrageous example - use of antihistamines against a spider bite and adverse effects of that antihistamine dose on patient's brain function! First of all, in reality, there are very few varieties of spiders that are dangerous to man. It is because of people like him and media reports that exaggerate the dangers posed by spider bites that spiders in general, have unfortunately gained a reputation of being dangerous and harmful. The most important groups of venomous spiders are as follows (not an exhaustive list) -

  1. Latrodectus spp. (Widow spiders - Black widow (NUSA), Katipo (NZ), Red-back (AUS), Shoe-button (SA) : Found throughout the world and known by many different common names according to country
  2. Loxosceles spp. (Violin spiders, Recluse spiders, Brown recluse spiders, Fiddleback spiders) : Found in South America, United States, Australia, commonly in the tropics
  3. Tegenaria agrestis (Hobo spider) : Found in United States
  4. Cheiracanthium (Yellow sac spider) : Found in United States
  5. Phoneutria (Banana spider) : Found in Central and South America
  6. Atrax and Hadronyche (Australian Funnel-Web spider) : Found in Australia
  7. Lampona cylindrata (White-tailed spider) : Found in Australia and New Zealand

Each of these spider venoms cause different effects depending on the type of spider, ranging from Dermonecrotic lesions to Sudden onset of neurotoxic symptoms. In terms of its treatment, the antihistamine treatment the author refers to is probably Diphenhydramine hydrochloride, commonly known as 'Benadryl'. It is an antihistamine with anticholinergic and sedative side effects. But, antihistamines, like most other drug classes, have sub-categories. Antihistamines are roughly categorized as 'Low or non-sedating ', 'Combination decongestant (Formulatory), and 'Other antihistamines (Sedating)'. Each of these sub-categories consists of different antihistamine compounds that are prescribed to patients on a case-to-case basis and therefore vary in dosage and frequency. For example, if your doctor prescribes you a dose of Cetirizine (Zyrtec) (Metabolite of hydroxyzine), a 'Low or non-sedating' antihistamine**, you are not going to fall off of a running train because you felt drowsy! No doubt there are Adverse Drug Reactions (ADR) with some medications, but drowsiness brought on by a dose of antihistamines is least worrying! Combinatorial drug regimes and targeted drug therapies are some of the effective ways to combat such ADRs, not "holistic healing with right frequencies of electromagnetic energy"!
"One gene could look after so many functions." 
"In addition, we have trillions of genes acquired from a multitude of germs that have become a part of us over millions of years and they live a symbiotic existence, the so called human meta-genome." 
"This shows how foolish our expensive search for genetic modelling and genetic engineering, including stem cell research is. In fact, studies have elegantly shown that body cells, if needed, could transform themselves into pluripotent stem cells." 
"The very word animate comes from the proteins in the genetic chain." 
"It is the invisible forces of electromagnetic energy that keep us alive and all those frequencies like cellphones, microwave ovens, radio frequencies and even the scalar energy affect our DNA, RNA and protein synthesis." 
"An added advantage is that energy signals travel at a phenomenal speed of 1, 86,000 miles per second, while chemical transmission is just one centimetre per second!! While drugs take months to get one back on one's feet after a major illness, energy healing takes only hours to days!" 
"So our connection with the outside world is through the cell wall, our true brain. The environmental signals are our true saviours, God if you like (Bruce Lipton). When this signal dies, organism dies only to enter another shell to be reborn!" 
"Instead of understanding human physiology properly, modern medicine created the monsters of “killer diseases” which are nothing but deviations in physiology and behaviour from some hypothetical norm as unique disorders and dysfunctions. The gullible public thinks that they are all killer diseases, thanks to the 24X7-hour advertisements. Let us understand the human being and try and set the deranged cell frequencies with suitable alternatives to get man back on his feet."
This entire article is riddled with such inaccurate, baseless, pseudo-scientific, and ludicrous (to say the least) statements. I can go on deconstructing each one by one, but most of these statements are so blatantly erroneous, and reek so full of pseudo-scientific notions that it is quite evident to any logical human being (who's has actually reached till the end of this article) to decide the fate of this article all by himself!

I am similarly furious as my friend and question the basis on which Hindu decided to publish this article, albeit in their 'open page' section. Modern medicine may not have found the answer to every disease in this world, but at least it is based on a rock-solid foundation and it is progressive while taking the world towards a better future. On the contrary, the world that Prof. Hegde describes, one that is based on his erroneous theories, is a regressive one, without a doubt! Do you really wish to be a citizen of the latter?

** recommended dose is 5-10 mg once daily, depending upon symptom severity

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2. Anderson RN. United States Life Tables, 1998. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics; 1999. National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 48, No. 18.
3. Kinsella K, Velkoff VA. U.S. Census Bureau; Series P95/01–1. An Aging World. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; 2001.
4. Woodwell DA. National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 1997 Summary. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics; 1999. Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics, No. 305.