Seeing what sticks to the science wall
I sat down earlier on today and did something I haven’t done for a while: I read the paper. Now, I’ll be honest, the only times I ever used to regularly read the paper was when the Guardian still did their ‘Life’ supplement, and when I wanted to read the comics.* But I was saddened to see that the paper had almost no science articles.
So when I saw an article about stem cells being used to treat MS, I snatched at it, and read it all the way through. Then I read it again.
Then I put it down to poor science reporting. I’m no monster, I understand that science reporters have a lot of research to go through, and a short time in which to write an article. It results in some sub par writing, but it’s better than no science reporting at all.
And when I saw a longer article on the BBC, I thought “Great!” and leapt in. I then realised that it wasn’t the journalist’s fault for bad writing; it was the treatment that seemed stupid.
For non-medics like myself who don’t understand the human body, MS is damage to the myelin sheaths of the nerves.** What they’re doing in these trials is injecting MS patients with stem cells, on the assumption that they might end up in the brain and begin repairing the damage. I shit you not – to quote the aforementioned BBC article:
Researchers will collect stem cells from the bone marrow of patients, grow them in the laboratory and then re-inject them into their blood.
The stem cells will make their way to the brain where it is hoped that they will repair the damage caused by MS.
Is that a good way to do science? Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like they’re stumped for ideas. Like they’re just doing stuff, and seeing what happens. MS is essentially tissue damage, like a bruise (it’s a lot more than that, but bear with me). You wouldn’t inject a person with stem cells on the offchance that the cells might find their way to the bruise on your arm, or the scratch on your forehead.
Fair enough, they have “some evidence that these cells might be able to repair damaged tissue.” But that really seems too flimsy for them to be doing Europe wide trials. It just looks like they’re desperately clutching at straws.
* Oh, the comics. Although newspaper ones are still not as good as Private Eye’s.
** Any techies here who don’t “get” biology? Yeah, essentially the body’s electrical wiring is losing its insulation. There, now you understand MS in the most simplistic manner imaginable without using cuddly toys to represent axons.