Friday, November 21, 2014

The Migration Dilemma: No we don’t want to hurt families-but-just how many people do we want in the USA?

Today President Obama announced his new immigration policy (1) largely designed to prevent deportations of illegal immigrants from breaking up families. Certainly our nation should not be too harsh on hard-working people who have come here for economic opportunity and who have had children born in the US. However, I can’t help but wonder if this policy will re-activate the floodtide of illegal immigration that has taken place over the last two decades but that has recently shown signs of subsiding.

We are often described as a nation of immigrants and as a descendant of immigrants it is uncomfortable for me to argue that the US should cease to provide opportunities for deserving people. However the great surge of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries occurred in a very different setting than today. In 1900 the US population was 76 million. Today it is 320 million and is rapidly climbing toward 500 million by mid-century primarily because of immigration and the higher fertility rate of immigrants (2).

This raises the question of how many people do we want in our nation? Do we really want 500 million, how about a billion?  Business interests always favor population growth–more people, more sales more profits. But what about the life-styles of average people? Do we really want to live in the sort of ultra-crowded, polluted, degraded environment that is typical of China and India today?

Another issue is jobs. The combination of competition from abroad in manufacturing and the increased use of automation and computers at all levels of economic activity is limiting employment prospects for Americans. Whether it’s a highly trained software engineer from Bangalore or a carpenter from Guatemala City, the net effect of immigration is to further reduce opportunities for Americans. For the first time in our history even college graduates are having a difficult time finding jobs. Slowing immigration wont solve the problems caused by globalization and automation, but it will mute the effects somewhat.  

The US can’t address global poverty by having the world’s poor move here. Indeed much poverty around the globe is due to over-population. To this observer the intelligent approach for our nation is a combination of stringent limits on immigration coupled with strong support for population control and economic development in the poorer nations of the world.  


Friday, November 7, 2014

Prepare to feed the masses? Or push the population curve?

A recent report (1) from the Earth Institute at Columbia University discusses improved prospects for food production in Africa, indicating that the continent may be able to feed itself despite a projected population increase to 2 billion by 2050.  While improved food production is certainly good news, the report simply accepts the idea that there must be a huge increase in population over the next few decades. Even if hundreds of millions of additional people can be fed, their existence will wreak havoc on the planet. Presumably the additional billion Africans, along with similarly surging populations in south Asia and elsewhere, will aspire to American style (or at least Chinese style) affluence with the attendant disastrous impacts on resource use, pollution, species extinction and global warming. In Africa and around the developing world, investments in agriculture and industrialization dwarf investments in population control. Maybe priorities should be reversed.  


Friday, September 26, 2014

Population Growth and the Ebola Epidemic

The tragic spread of Ebola virus in Africa has been discussed at length as a failure of public health systems resulting from inept governance and from poverty. However, a root cause of the epidemic lies in the rapid and unchecked population growth in Africa.  Unlike developing countries in other parts of the world, African nations currently do not seem to be undergoing the ‘demographic transition’ that associates rising GDPs with falling fertility (1). The rapid increase in population sets the stage for transmission of diseases such as Ebola in two ways. First, by migration of people from overcrowded agricultural land to forest areas where more contact with animal disease vectors is possible. Second, by the ever-increasing populations in congested urban slum area where disease transmission is facilitated. Effective control of infectious disease epidemics in Africa (and elsewhere) must including more aggressive family planning services.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New Hope for Age-Related Eye Diseases

The announcement of a clinical trial of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) in Japan (1) has somewhat of a personal aspect for me.  I have recently been having some retinal problems consequent to a mishandled cataract operation.  This has made me very aware both of how important and how delicate our visual systems are. The Japanese trial will use iPS cells in patients suffering from age related macular degeneration, a common but difficult to treat eye disease. Since the retinal cells to be implanted will derive from the patient's own cells via the iPS approach, hopefully there will be no immune rejection.

As an older person I cheer the push toward stem cell therapies. It will probably come too late for my generation, but  hopefully a combination of stem cell and genetic technologies will eventually be able to attenuate many debilities that accrue with age.


Friday, September 12, 2014

GDF11- the Elixir of Youth??

A feature article in SCIENCE this week (1) summarized some very impressive work from Amy Wagers (Harvard) and other researchers on blood factors that seem able to partially reverse age-related tissue degeneration. Several groups have used a technique termed parabiosis to establish a shared circulation between old and young mice.  This resulted in improved function in muscles, heart, and nerves of the older mice. One possibility is that blood factors from young mice restore the ability of stem cells in older animals to repopulate damaged tissues. In an exciting new development Wagers and colleagues have identified a protein termed GDF11 as the rejuvenating blood factor. GDF11 is a member of the TGB-beta family of growth factors that regulate many aspects of tissue differentiation and growth.

These results would seem to open up new opportunities for clinical approaches that address ageing per se rather than individual diseases associated with ageing. Some strong arguments have been made that this approach would make a much greater contribution to human health and longevity than disease specific therapies (2).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Re-branding the PhD

This week’s NATURE has a rather bizarre editorial regarding careers for PhDs (1). The editors acknowledge that currently many individuals with PhDs do not find academic positions, or even positions actually doing research, but rather wind up in a variety jobs that really do not require intensive research training, ranging from high school teaching to investment banking. However, rather than viewing this as a problem in PhD supply-demand economics, the editors chose to put a cheerful spin on the situation and brand all of the ‘alternative careers’ as a good thing.

To my mind the American Society for Cell Biology (2) has a more realistic perspective when it states that in the current context, where less than 10% of enrolled biomedical PhD students will become tenure track faculty, “A faculty job is an ‘alternative’ career”. To be sure NATURE has previously discussed the PhD glut from a more balanced perspective (3). However, the current attempt to view a bad situation through rose-colored glasses is not helpful.

As discussed several times on this blog (4,5) the PhD oversupply is the result of self-interested actions on the part of faculty and university administrators. Cheap labor is needed to keep the grants and publications coming.



Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pharmaceutical Failures and Near Misses: More Examples of Why Finding New Drugs is Too Important to be Driven Solely by the Profit Motive.

Recent stories arising from medical areas as diverse as breast cancer and Ebola illustrate the failures and near-failures of drug discovery by for-profit pharmaceutical companies.

An article in SCIENCE (1) recounts the twists and turns of the highly promising anti-cancer drug palbociclib. This agent selectively inhibits CDK4, a kinase that is involved in cell cycle control and that is crucial to the growth of certain cancers. The history of this drug goes back to the 1990s when it was developed by researchers at Parke-Davis Co. When the giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer acquired Parke-Davis in 2000 palbociclib was almost dropped and its development was delayed for years during the various twists and turns of Pfizer’s recent corporate history. Its re-emergence as a promising drug for breast cancer is primarily due to several independent clinical researchers who championed its use. This type of on-again off-again drug research is all too common in ‘Big Pharma’ where science is often subverted by marketing and corporate strategy issues.

The recent explosion of concern regarding anti-Ebola drugs reflects another aspect of the failure of for-profit major drug companies to deal with problems of great public health concern. As stated nicely in a recent blog post (2) from the CSPO at Arizona State “when we rely on a market-based system to drive medical research that may not be profitable in the short term or even medium term, that system is unlikely to respond to potential future threats — no matter how high the potential cost — if there is not a reasonable promise of economic return in the end“. This of course exactly describes the situation with Ebola as well as with many other diseases that primarily affect less-developed countries and that thus do not provide the prospect of lucrative profits.

The BBC website has summarized recent efforts on Ebola drug development (3). Although several companies are involved in this process, it is important to note that much of the early-phase research on drugs for exotic diseases has been sponsored by governments. For example, promising drugs for Marburg and Ebola viruses being developed by Sarepta Therapeutics and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, two small biotech companies, have been sponsored by the US Dept. of Defense.

The role of governments in developing innovative technology is often under-appreciated (4); in contrast private companies (particularly pharmaceutical companies) use highly developed public relations tools to claim a leading role in innovation. The emergence of pandemics such as the current Ebola outbreak should be readily anticipated based on the phenomenal increases in both population and mobility occurring in Africa in recent years (5). However, it has been governments and non-profits rather than Big Pharma that have led the way in preparing for such public health emergencies. All of this inevitably leads to the conclusion that drug discovery and development is too important to be driven solely by the quest for corporate profits.