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Thursday
May042017

The Else-Kröner foundation

I am in Würzburg for a Translational Immunology conference. The conference is hosted by the Else Kröner foundation, which is quite an inspiring story. Else started out with a pretty bad roll of the dice – her father died before she was born, and her mother, struggling as a cleaner for a pharmacy, died while she was still young. The story could easily have ended in poverty, but fortunately Else was adopted by the pharmacist. Even this stroke of luck soon ended, with her adopted father dying during WWII, and a young Else inheriting a bombed out pharmacy. It must have been an amazing story of courage, talent and dedication for Else to rebuild her pharmacy and turn it into a multi-million dollar company, Fresenius, specialising in nutritional supplements. In her will, Else put enough money aside to look after her children until they graduated from university, and turned the rest into a foundation for medical research. The foundation is still the majority shareholder of Fresenius, and sponsors early-career clinical researchers, such as the excellent Translational Immunology program they run in Würzburg. 

Monday
Apr242017

Chile

Sunday
Apr232017

Travelling as a vegetarian

So, inspired by my recent trip to Chile, I thought I would make a map of where it is easy/hard to be a vegetarian. It ranges from:

Amazing: India, Italy and Thailand, oh my!

Good: you don't need to check the menu, every place will have a couple of decent vegetarian options

Okay: you might need to search a bit, but you are not going to go hungry and there are occasional gems

Poor: waiters will look at you funny, but the cook will try to make you an omlet or something

Bad: yeah, expect to have a few meals based around fries and beer. Waiters are just going to say "no".

Food desert: desperately looking for a Subway or pizza place, you'll end up appreciating airline food at the end

Note: a lot of these places can flip dramatically if you eat fish, most notably Spain, Indonesia and Japan

Wednesday
Apr192017

Wisconsin man shot by pet octopus

Madison, Wisconsin: Dwaine Edwards, 38, was hospitalised Thursday night after being shot by his pet octopus. Mr Edwards was rushed to St Mary's Hospital, where he was treated and is expected to make a full recovery.

Pet octopuses are known to be able to climb out of aquarium and perform complex tasks, such as opening jars of food. "Octopussy", the pet of Mr Edwards, is thought to have climbed out and triggered the loaded Glock 17 left next to the aquarium. Mr Edwards, watching TV in the same room, was hit by the stray bullet, resulting in a gunshot wound to the upper thigh. 

When asked whether the incident will change his policy on keeping loaded guns lying around the house, Mr Edwards replied, "No way man, I'm Second Amendment all the way". He continued, "I'm even thinking of getting Octopussy his own set. Can you imagine, some gangbanger breaks into my place, and he gets a bullet through the head from me and eight shots to the chest from Octopussy - how awesome would that be!"

When asked for comment, the NRA President, Mr Wayne LaPierre, replied, "our thoughts and prayers go out to Mr Edwards. While this minor accident is regrettable, we must not forget that the only thing that can stop a bad octopus with a gun is a good octopus with a gun". 

Saturday
Mar182017

Bengaluru, India

Possibly the worst thing to be written on a Supreme Court building anywhere

The Bull Temple

Bangalore Palace, built as an imitation to Windsor Castle

Holi, the festival of colour. We all got inked that day...

Friday
Mar172017

Cartoon wisdom

When I was young, cartoons taught us... pretty much nothing. Mostly that senseless violence is funny, I guess. Perhaps that being shot in the face with a gun is ultimately harmless.

For Hayden, the cartoons he watches are genuinely wise. Peppa Pig includes the best male rolemodel on TV, and a family that uses good humour to live together. My Little Pony teaches about friendship and growing up. Avatar the Last Airbender teaches about diversity and how pain can make good people do bad things. Okay, Adventure Time doesn't make much sense, but this wisdom from Hayden is straight from Daniel Tiger:

Saturday
Jan282017

A year in costume

 

Monday
Jan162017

39 star

Sandra and Sally manoeuvred into the office. Sally went first, wheeling the enormous infant stroller. She was haggard with sleep deprivation, temper frayed by the last two weeks of sleepless nights, and when the stroller unexpectedly veered into the door she snapped.

“This stupid thing! Cost us two thousand, and the wheels don’t even – ”

Sandra cut her off with a sharp “Quiet! You’ll wake Vinnie”.

Sandra carried baby Vincent in a sling. He was prone to wake up early when sleeping on Sally, the smell of milk tempting him awake. Not that I smell any better, thought Sandra with disgust, faintly nauseous at the smell of sour milk wafting up from the baby. Still, she smiled with love when she looked down, so adorable. At least, when he wasn’t screaming.

It was ten minutes before the Professor entered. Thinning hair streaked with white and leathery skin indicated his age, yet he seemed positively buoyant as he entered. “I have great news for you, your son is going to be a Star37!”

Sally and Sandra looked up in shock. “Like… a Brain?”, Sally said.

“Yes, like a Brain”, the Professor laughed softly, using his fingers to put air-quotes around the last word. “Your son carries the DRB1*3:37 allele, plus autoimmune susceptibility alleles at PTPN22, CD25 and half a dozen others. It would be even better if he was female, but this is just a beautiful genome to induce autoimmunity!”

“So, he has a lot of genes for intelligence?” Sally asked.

“No my dear”, drawled the Professor, patronizingly. “Being a Star37 goes far beyond the range of normal human intelligence. Every human brain has a small set of neurons, called Ent1 positive neurons, that work to suppress our intellect. You must understand that during our evolution, intelligence was an asset, but sometimes we needed to run on instinct. When a sabre-toothed tiger jumps out at you, you don’t want a detailed analysis of the risk profile, you want your body to take over on instinct. The Ent1 positive neurons are responsible for suppressing intellect at these times, letting our animal brains take over. The problem is, they also cause a baseline suppression of our intelligence – so if we can remove them the potential intellect increase is amazing. We now suspect that scientists like Einstein and Newton were lacking these neurons – and your son could be the next Einstein!”

 “So does this mean the donor was a Brain?” Sandra asked.

“Probably not, the father –”

“Donor”, said Sally under her breath.

“must have carried the *37 allele, since it is not in your genome. But *37 just means you have the right TCR repertoire to initiate an autoimmune reaction against Ent1. By itself there is only a 2-3% chance of destroying the Ent1 positive neurons, we really need defects in immune tolerance genes to have a good chance of initiating a strong enough immune response. And those genes, my dear, are from you. Tell me, does anyone in your family have autoimmunity?”

He directed the question at Sandra, but Sally cut in. “I’m the biological mother. My brother has Multiple Sclerosis, is that autoimmunity?”

“Multiple Sclerosis! Delightful, how perfect!”

“That’s horrible! You haven’t seen how Paul has suffered, how can you laugh at that! Is Vinnie going to catch Multiple Sclerosis too?”

“No no, I’m sorry my dear, yes it is a tragedy for your brother, but don’t you see, this means the world for your son! He is really just an ideal candidate for immune conversion therapy.”

“This won’t cause any damage to Vinnie, will it?”, Sally worried.

 “We don’t exactly have sabre-tooth tigers running around, and would you rather your son be decent at sports and music, or a genius?  There are some minor downsides, like a decreased libido, but nothing I wouldn’t give up in a heartbeat! Look, let me give you some pamphlets. You have plenty of time to get use to the idea. We don’t start the autoimmune reaction until puberty anyway, too much risk of neuronal plasticity replacing the lost function.”

---

40 years later, Vincent was in a reflective mood. He had led a fairly normal childhood. Most children with the DRB1*3:37 allele were sent to intense training prior to immune conversion therapy, paid for by venture capitalists in return for a 1% cut of future earnings. His mothers had decided that if he was going to be a Brain anyway, better for them to focus on teaching him compassion and empathy, so he had gone to a local school and had spent weekends volunteering for a dozen different charities. Their final lesson in ethics had been to give him the choice, at 12 years old, of whether to undergo treatment or not. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had decided the other way? It was a musing he had had a hundred times before, but today at least the answer was clear. I’m happy, so I must have made the right choice.

Saturday
Nov052016

Americans, please vote for Hillary Clinton

Next week the world's super-power gets to vote. Americans can choose to vote for Hillary Clinton, and continue the course as a normal democratic country, with incremental improvements to the lives of millions. Or Americans can choose to vote for Donald Trump, and embrace a white supremist movement that want to burn their own houses down in rage. Please, Americans, get out a vote. Hillary doesn't just need to win, she needs to demolish Trump, otherwise this deplorable specter will raise its head again and again until it breaks through. This is not a normal election. This is an event that you will need to be able to explain to your grandchildren, to be able to look them in the eye and say "I did everything I could to stop it".

I personally find Hillary Clinton inspiring. For those who don't like it, fine, but as to the choice between Clinton and Trump, Seth Meyers says it best:

When put like that, it is a pretty easy choice, which is when pretty much every leading economist, security expert, environmentalist, past-President, Nobel Prize winning scientist and just plan expert has endorsed Hillary. And it is a choice between Trump and Clinton, don't get cute about voting for a third party. Johnson and Stein are crackpots. As John Oliver says, "you are picking the lesser of four evils", and anything other than a vote for Clinton will enable Trump to become President:

Please, don't screw this up.

Monday
Oct032016

Imperfection

I grimaced slightly as I heard a harsh voice raised against my personal assistant. This was not going to be an easy meeting.

I stood as he barged in, an impressive specimen of a man, perfectly symmetrical features blemished only by the flush of anger, a face that still looked in its mid-thirties despite being well over 90. "Welcome to the Roberts Clinic", I smiled and inclined my head.

"I know where I am, I own the damn place!" snapped Roberts. Contempt flared in me but I didn't bite back. the endowment wasn't a purchase, but it was bigger than my pride.

"What the hell did you do to my son!"

It was not a question.

Roberts slammed his fist on my desk, and shouted into my face. “I paid for perfection, and you screwed up!”

“Please Mr Roberts, take a seat”. I sat down, and flicked on the relaxant. Technically it was illegal to use the oxytocin aerosol to modify someone else’s mood, but things were getting out of hand. Besides, I justified, really I am using it to help control my own emotions.

Roberts took a deep breath and sat down. He swiped his fingers down his sleeve – the latest smart-fabric – and flicked an image off, to hover above my desk. “Do you see what this is?”

I already knew. Junior’s transcript from his first year at the Helú Business School. A row of Bs and a C.

“Mr Roberts, these are not the best grades, but I don’t understand why you are talking to me rather than the Dean at Harvard.”

“I paid you for perfection! A two billion dollar investment buys me the perfect son. You said that my cloned cells would have all the genetic imperfections removed, but clearly you screwed up!”

Clinically detached I noticed the slight distortion around the edge of his face. He really should avoid scowling if he wants to hide his age, the stem cell restoration works a treat with skin epithelium, but doesn’t restore those peripheral facial nerves - most people wouldn't notice, but it was a tell to an expert.

“I assure you Sir, Junior is genetically perfect. Every mutation known to give even the slightest risk of disease was removed, every genetic advantage we could give him physically or intellectually was added. Although, honestly, he had such great genetic material to start with that we didn’t need to change much". I was pandering shamelessly - we had had to fix a hypomethylated repeat sequence that would have increased the risk of early-onset dementia. I still shuddered at the effort it took to develop CrispR-dCas9-DMNT1 to methylate that repeat without causing widespread epigenetic pollution.

Mollified, he leant back, the anger ebbing from his face. As he shifted, his eyes flickered to the wall. Instantly his rage returned. “What the hell is that!”, pointing to an iron plaque on the wall.

He bounded out of his chair and tried to rip the plaque from the wall, but the neodymium clasps held. Merde! I’m so used to virtual meetings I hadn’t thought twice that today he’d be seeing my office in the flesh.

“I pay two billion for the Roberts clinic, and you take my money while sitting here with the ‘Mayo clinic’ getting all the credit! This comes down today!”

“Okay, I’ve have it moved. Sir, I know Junior has struggled with the transition from school to college. These grades aren’t great, but he’s got the potential, he just needs to work.”

Roberts took a step towards me, his finger wagging in my face. “I paid for a genius, you guaranteed me a genius and he’s just average. You screwed up, and I’m going to hold you responsible. I’ll sue the hell out of you and the clinic if you don’t fix this.”

The arrogant bastard. I took his cells, made a perfect clone and tolerated nearly 30 decades of erratic abuse at board meetings, and he blames me for his kid’s grades! Without thinking I stood too.

“Look, Roberts. Genetically, that kid has more potential than Einstein. He should beat every child of his generation without trying. But you know what, it takes more than golden genes to be a genius, and he’s failing because of you! You raised a spoiled little self-centered brat who runs to daddy crying for a hand-out. You think that geniuses are born? No, they are nourished by intellectual engagement and inspiring examples, and all this kid had to look up to was a blow-hard father and private tutors paid to give him complements!”

Roberts swung wildly at me, the rage of a man who had never had anyone yell at him since his own father had passed along the family fortune. I made the security gesture and Roberts crumpled to the floor, instantly unconscious. An image of our head of security leapt up above my desk. “Isabella, please have Mr Roberts removed, and pass along the datastream to the authorities”.

A fifty year career at the Clinic over, I’d have to resign for sure. Worth it though. I could probably get a job in the UK, Roberts wouldn’t have any clout over there. I wonder if the Boots-Crick Institute is looking for someone?