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Category Archives: hoaxes conspiracy theories and pseudoscience
(Originally published on Occam’s Corner at Guardian Science, in December 2014)
Epigenetics is helping us to solve DNA mysteries that cannot be explained by genetics alone. It might even help explain some of the spooky phenomena described in the 1990s science documentary series The X-Files…
Epigenetics has the power to open up possibilities beyond those offered by genetics alone – including the occasional triple word score Photograph: Cath Ennis
Dana Scully was a scientist, always looking for a perfectly rational explanation for the strange phenomena encountered each week. Many of these explanations were based on genetics, especially in the “monster-of-the-week” episodes featuring assorted freaks and other abominations not part of the main alien conspiracy storyline. Memorable monsters included such delights as a sewer-dwelling fluke man, and a charming creature possessing the lethal combination of an ability to squeeze through any gap and a taste for human liver.
It was easy enough to explain some of these freaks as genetic mutants – the man with a tail and an unusual muscle structure allowing him to mimic facial features surely had some kind of mutation in a muscle fibre gene – but the scientific basis of many other cases remained unknown. This shouldn’t be surprising: science moves quickly, and we’ve learned a lot about genetics since the ‘90s. One of the major advances made since then is in the field of epigenetics – a field that I believe has the power to resolve some X-Files cold cases.
X chromosome inactivation can definitely be explained by epigenetics. X-Files? Less certain. Image from Reinius et al., BMC Genomics 2010, 11, 614.
Epigenetic modifications include the addition of a methyl molecule to the DNA itself (could this be the mysterious fifth letter that Scully found in a segment of alien DNA?), and changes to the histone proteins around which the double helix coils itself. This molecular highlighting affects how the DNA text is read in that region, helping to determine which genes are switched on or off in each cell.
Many unresolved X-Files cases that might be accounted for by a genetic mutation could just as easily be explained by an epigenetic modification of the same gene.
For example, in cancer (where the cell’s epigenetic patterns go just as awry as everything else), the same tumour suppressor genes that are often lost by mutation or deletion can also be eliminated by abnormal methylation patterns in that part of the DNA. If there’s also a “psychic abilities suppressor gene” lurking in our genome, then we can provide a perfectly rational explanation for multiple cold cases in one fell swoop.
But let’s move on to something a little more challenging.
An important feature of epigenetics is that the pattern of molecular highlighting isn’t fixed. The DNA sequence itself is essentially the same in every cell of the body and through all stages of life; in contrast, epigenetic modifications are different in different cells, change during processes such as metamorphosis (definitely in frogs, so probably also in shape-shifting extraterrestrial species), and can change in response to the environment.
Even identical twins (or, say, genetically engineered clones), who have identical DNA sequences, have different epigenetic patterns – and these differences increase as the twins get older. This helps to explain why identical twins aren’t actually identical, and also why some clones are evil and others are able to overcome their genetic programming to become productive members of society.
Experiences as diverse as chemical exposures, traumatic experiences, and exercise have been shown to cause epigenetic changes. I haven’t yet seen any published scientific papers documenting the epigenetic effects of exposure to alien abduction, alien viruses, parasitic ice worms, hallucinogenic fungal spores, or questionable tattoos, but I’m sure they would be spectacularly interesting and could account for the strange behaviour of some of the unfortunate people involved. They probably also explain Scully’s cancer; if carcinogens such as bisphenol A can operate at least partially via epigenetic mechanisms, I don’t see why alien experimentation techniques can’t do the same.
There’s even evidence that the epigenetic changes caused by some experiences, such as periods of starvation or drug use, can be passed on to future generations. Could epigenetic inheritance account for the supernatural abilities of Mulder and Scully’s son William? (Yes, William’s abilities were demonstrated in seasons eight and nine. Yes, I just said that I refuse to admit that these seasons ever happened. If Chris Carter doesn’t have to be internally consistent, then I don’t have to either). Some might even argue that epigenetic inheritance can also explain memories of past lives, but hey – that’s just silly.
In summary, the hypothesis that we can use epigenetics to finally close several X-Files cold cases seems to have some merit. (We can ascribe anything we can’t explain via epigenetics, such as invisibility and possibly the conception of baby William, to epic genie tricks instead). I hope the FBI are paying attention…
Add your own cold case explanations in the comments!
Cath Ennis is, like all the best X-Files episodes, based in Vancouver, Canada. She doesn’t really believe The X-Files was a documentary.
This article most definitely does not represent the official position of the International Human Epigenome Consortium. However, Cath and other consortium members did discuss some of the cold case explanations included in the article (on their own time and their own dime) during the 2014 Annual IHEC Meeting in Vancouver. Thank you Dena Procaccini and other participants for your contributions!
Cath is on Twitter as @enniscath, and on Words With Friends as Wonderbrit. The Truth is out there, and it’s worth at least eight points.
The charity Cancer Research UK recently published a great piece titled “Don’t believe the hype – 10 persistent cancer myths debunked”.
The article takes a common-sense approach, backed up by the latest scientific findings, to discussing some of the most common myths that surround the disease. These include the beliefs that acidic diets cause cancer, that sharks don’t get cancer, and that there’s a secret cure for cancer that’s being suppressed (something I’ve written about before, too).
I don’t know how these myths get started, but they’ve been around since I can remember, and they seem to propagate faster than ever through Facebook and other channels. I find that the Cancer Research UK website is usually a great starting point if you want to fact-check a claim about the disease. I also highly recommend the book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee; I’ve been in cancer research since 1998, so I knew much of the science described in the book, but not the story of how we gained this knowledge of the disease. It’s a fascinating read.
Check out the full Cancer Research UK article here
Full disclaimer: I did my PhD at a Cancer Research UK-funded facility, but have had no formal connection with the charity since 2002. I just really like their website and podcast 🙂
I remember exactly where I was the very first time I learned that I was part of a global conspiracy, raking in millions of dollars and laughing sadistically as people died all around me: I was at my friends’ 2004 Christmas party, and had just told a fellow guest that I was a research scientist and worked at the BC Cancer Agency.
The millions of dollars were news to me, given that as a freshly minted PhD I was making C$35,000 (£22,000) a year at the time. However, what really took me aback was the sheer vehemence of the anger being directed at me by my friends’ new neighbour. He jabbed his finger at me as he raised his voice and ranted about how “all you scientists are sitting on a 100% effective cure for cancer” (“a bunch of vitamins smushed together with proteins” were his exact words), watching millions of people die as we counted the royalty money from the “useless poisons” we were forcing people to take.
The neighbour was ejected from the party, never to be invited back, after poking my husband in the chest when he came to see if I was OK – but I’ve heard that same conspiracy theory many times since. It crops up most commonly online, to the extent that I read even those news articles about my own institute’s latest research findings with a sense of impending doom that worsens as I near the bottom of the page.
Now, I’m not an idiot – I know progress is frustratingly slow (but steady), and I know that some big pharma business practices are rather less than optimally ethical. However, having spent 12 of the last 14 years in academic cancer research (first in the lab and then as a research project manager/grant application wrangler), I also understand why the problem is so hard. (Briefly, killing cancer cells while leaving normal cells unharmed is like trying to win an old fashioned infantry battle in which both sides are wearing the same uniform, except some of the enemy have slightly different shaped buttons, others have slightly longer bootlaces, others have slightly lacier underwear, and all have the ability to suddenly change clothes halfway through the fight).
There is no “cure” – just incrementally earlier detection, more effective treatments, and – in some cases, such as the HPV vaccine – better prevention. We have a long way still to go, but things really are much better than they used to be. (If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend Siddhartha Mukherjee’s excellent book ‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer‘).
The urge to contribute to further improvements to global cancer outcomes is what drives all the cancer researchers I know to keep going – and that goes for collaborators I’ve met who work in big pharma company labs just as much as for my colleagues in the academic sector. Many of us got into this field in the first place because a loved one succumbed to cancer (my Grandma, in my case, when I was 15).
I know people who’ve turned their backs on much more lucrative medical careers to focus on research; I myself took a pay cut and switched from a permanent job back to the world of short-term contracts to return to academic cancer research after a couple of unfulfilling years in the biotech industry. Believe me, a lot of people could be making a lot more money doing other things. Sure, there are some pretty big egos in research labs around the world, but they’re driven by fame rather than fortune.
More importantly, if we really were sitting on a secret cure, no one in this field or any of our loved ones would ever die from cancer, and that just Is. Not. True. In one recent high-profile example, Dr Ralph Steinman died of pancreatic cancer just days before being awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, despite concerted efforts by himself and colleagues to use his own findings to fight the disease. Closer to home, I know dozens of people in both academic and big pharma cancer research who either have had cancer or who have lost someone close to them to the disease.
So. Secret cure? Massive global conspiracy?
We’ve managed to buy off every single person involved in the clinical trials we had to conduct to prove that this miracle drug is in fact the cure – all the patients, their families and friends, nurses, doctors, medical records transcriptionists, statisticians, graduate students, etc. We keep our chemotherapy drug royalty profits rolling in by refusing to take the cure ourselves when we get cancer, or to give it to any of our friends or family members. We protect our jobs at the expense of millions of deaths because there’s nothing else this group of highly trained people could feasibly do, no neglected diseases we could work on, once we admit to the world that cancer is cured. And not one person so far has wanted to claim the Nobel Prize and the love and admiration of the entire world that a “cure” would bring them! Wasn’t that lucky?
Oh, and by the way – big pharma are shutting down that other cure you’ve heard about – you know, the super cheap Epsom salt one or whatever the Facebook share of the week is – because there’s no way their huge teams of experienced intellectual property lawyers could possibly find a way to patent a new and unique way to formulate and use an existing product.
But SSSHHHH! Don’t tell anyone…
[Originally posted on my personal blog in February 2013]
I just posted the following on Facebook, and thought I’d share it here, too – the wider the news that this is a hoax is disseminated, the better for everyone.
I’ve seen a Facebook post about cancer circulating among various completely separate groups of friends in the last few days. The information in the post claims to be from the Johns Hopkins cancer center, but it is most definitely a hoax. I was actually riled up enough to want to write a point-by-point refutation of the contents of the post, but fortunately Johns Hopkins have already done an absolutely stellar debunking job.
This kind of misinformation makes me SO MAD. It twists the available evidence that a healthy diet can reduce (NOT eliminate) the risk of developing cancer into statements that eating or avoiding very specific foods or groups of foods will prevent cancer. This in turn cultivates a culture of victim blaming, in which someone’s response to hearing that someone they know has been diagnosed is often “well, he/she eats [whatever], so of course they got cancer. I don’t eat that, so I won’t”. In fact, outside of some very strongly correlated exceptions (e.g. smoking as a risk factor for lung cancer, some genetic predispositions), it’s next to impossible to blame any individual’s diagnosis on any one factor – it’s a mix of your genes, your diet, your stress levels, your socioeconomic status, your hormones, your environmental exposure, and plain old luck of the draw.
I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing a book about the causes of cancer, to help the newly diagnosed and their loved ones understand what’s going on. Hoaxes like this serve as a kick in the pants to get myself organised and actually do it.
End rant. But AAARRRGGGHHH!