Fluid interpretations

Archimedes was heartened by one aspect of the whole sad Warne anti-doping affair—that people knew enough about the issues to filter out the bulldust.

They could pick up a dictionary and determine that the great spin doctor’s term ‘fluid tablet’ was but a subtle variation on the word ‘diuretic’ which means ‘tending to increase the flow of urine from the body’. Most people with whom Archimedes was in contact suspected it would take more than a single ‘fluid tablet’ to disappear a double chin. Even without those long and boring anti-doping classes—to which Warne said he did not pay attention—they were suspicious that a tablet labelled ModURETIC might be worth checking up on as a DiURETIC.

Would that the community became as knowledgeable about other science-based issues that are potentially important to their daily lives—such as the vilification of eminent stem cell researcher, Alan Trounson, in the Senate last year.

Trounson showed the senators a video, in which a mouse was shown to recover movement in its formerly paralysed hind legs after treatment, supposedly with embryonic stem cells. But ‘embryonic stem cells’ was a simplification. Stem cells in embryos are capable of forming all the tissues in the body. As organisms grow older, most stem cells lose flexibility (don’t we all!), and the range of tissues they can regenerate becomes more restricted.

The cells used to treat the mouse were not strictly embryonic, but somewhat older. ‘Ha!’ screamed anti-stem-cell senators. ‘You misled us! You tricked us!’ But those cells were less likely to have the desired effect—and they still worked. Why weren’t people wise to that?

It’s a strange sort of trick to make life harder for yourself, as Trounson did. And a strange sort of politician who insists on setting standards of truth for others that far exceed those of the everyday exchanges in parliament. In this case the consequences were potentially dire—the withdrawal of federal government support for a world-class research institute, in a field where Australia is a leader and could alleviate the suffering of millions (and turn a nice profit).

The irony is that one of the aims of the new National Stem Cell Centre, of which Trounson is the director, is to determine just what makes embryonic stem cells so flexible—in an effort to reduce their use. If we could turn other cells into embryonic stem cells, or treat some conditions as effectively with older, even adult, stem cells, we could possibly reduce or eliminate the need for embryonic tissue.

We live in stressful and warlike times. It’s almost a cliché that the first casualty is truth—and the word of the President of the United States, let alone the President of Iraq, is no longer taken at face value.
The only protection we have against this blizzard of distortion is education—in which Warne professes not to be interested. Now more than ever, that has to include science, engineering and medicine, as well as economics, law and the humanities. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.



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