Friday, January 29, 2016

Stopping Lou Gehrig's Disease in its tracks?

Another day, another disease cured? Not quite. However, it sounds like researchers at Oregon State University, in a study of mice implanted with ALS, may have found something which will lead to a useful therapy for human patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The breakthrough is not a cure. Rather, it is, if it works in people, something which might stop the progression of this deadly disease.

Researchers at Oregon State University have announced that they have essentially stopped the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, for nearly two years in one type of mouse model used to study the disease -- allowing the mice to approach their normal lifespan.

The findings, scientists indicate, are some of the most compelling ever produced in the search for a therapy for ALS, a debilitating and fatal disease, and were just published in Neurobiology of Disease.

"We are shocked at how well this treatment can stop the progression of ALS," said Joseph Beckman, lead author on this study, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and principal investigator and holder of the Burgess and Elizabeth Jamieson Chair in OSU's Linus Pauling Institute.
In decades of work, no treatment has been discovered for ALS that can do anything but prolong human survival less than a month. The mouse model used in this study is one that scientists believe may more closely resemble the human reaction to this treatment, which consists of a compound called copper-ATSM.

It's not yet known if humans will have the same response, but researchers are moving as quickly as possible toward human clinical trials, testing first for safety and then efficacy of the new approach.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Why don't we kick out immigrants after they are convicted of felonies?

There is something I don’t get about the case of Hossein Nayeri, the alleged leader of a group of three brutal felons who escaped recently from the Orange County Jail: Why wasn’t he exiled from the United States after his first felony conviction?

It seems to me, as an immigrant to the United States, once he killed his friend while driving drunk, he should have been stripped of all rights to reside in this country. After serving his jail time for that crime — which sadly was minimal — he should have been sent back to Iran and never again allowed back into the U.S.

Nayeri was born in Iran and as a child emigrated to the U.S. with his family. … Nayeri had no felony record in 2005 when he was charged in a drunken-driving accident that killed his high school friend, Ehsan Tousi. … While free on bail, Nayeri fled but eventually was arrested in Washington and extradited to California in 2009. … He was sentenced to less than a year in county jail and four years of probation, in part because of his lack of felony history. … Nayeri moved from Madera County to Orange County and violated probation several times, court records show.

That was our government’s first mistake in this case: he kills his friend, skips bail, flees out of state, gets a lenient sentence, violates his probation and nothing happens. It makes no sense. He should have gotten 5 years hard time in prison for killing his friend, and then he should have been put on a plane back to Iran and never allowed back in the U.S.

No one who immigrates to the United States has a right to remain in this country if they commit felonies while here. If they had been granted citizenship — it is not said if Nayeri is a U.S. citizen — that privilege needs to be stripped the day they go to prison as a felon.

In 2011, he was charged with domestic battery, false imprisonment and making criminal threats but the case was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor. That same year, a woman — one of the friends who wrote the judge on his behalf in 2005 — filed a request for a protective order against him, according to court records.

Clearly, Nayeri’s criminality did not stop after he killed his high school friend.

He was still on probation in 2012 when, prosecutors say, he fled during a traffic stop in Orange County and led police on a high-speed chase. Nayeri managed to get away on foot after ditching the car, which had surveillance devices, video footage and GPS trackers inside. About a week later, prosecutors say, Nayeri and three others kidnapped a medical marijuana distributor, bound him with zip ties and drove him to desert where they believed he had buried a large sum of cash. There, the man was tortured with a blow torch and his penis severed, according to court files.

That crime never would have happened if he had been exiled as he should have been a long time ago. Yet now he is running around free, because another Iranian immigrant who worked at the jail helped Nayeri and two other immigrant criminals escape. It is completely asinine that we don’t exile these “guests” who want to live in our country but don’t want to live by the law.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Scientists open the ‘black box’ of schizophrenia with dramatic genetic discovery

Every few days, it seems like there is a story of a major scientific "breakthrough" in the news. Yet the reality of science is that most pathways which look promising at first eventually close up or peter out. However, if there are enough potential breakthroughs developed, one or more will eventually prove itself to be useful, either in solving a problem or leading to the right direction were the solution will eventually be found.

In the past few weeks I have read -- and posted to this blog -- stories regarding gene editing using the new CRISPR9 technology which I think portend well to solving a lot of serious genetic maladies. Today, the Washington Post reports that there has been a "dramatic genetic discovery" which might lead to solving schizophrenia:

For the first time, scientists have pinned down a molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia. The researchers involved in the landmark study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, say the discovery of this new genetic pathway probably reveals what goes wrong neurologically in a young person diagnosed with the devastating disorder. ... The researchers, chiefly from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital, found that a person's risk of schizophrenia is dramatically increased if they inherit variants of a gene important to "synaptic pruning" -- the healthy reduction during adolescence of brain cell connections that are no longer needed. In patients with schizophrenia, a variation in a single position in the DNA sequence marks too many synapses for removal and that pruning goes out of control. The result is an abnormal loss of gray matter.

This seems to explain for the first time why autopsies of the brains of schizophrenics show a big loss in gray matter -- their DNA is ordering far too much "synaptic pruning."

There have been hundreds of theories about schizophrenia over the years, but one of the enduring mysteries has been how three prominent findings related to each other: the apparent involvement of immune molecules, the disorder's typical onset in late adolescence and early adulthood, and the thinning of gray matter seen in autopsies of patients. "The thing about this result," said McCarroll, the lead author, " it makes a lot of other things understandable. To have a result to connect to these observations and to have a molecule and strong level of genetic evidence from tens of thousands of research participants, I think that combination sets [this study] apart."

Now that scientists seem to know what is going on for the first time, they will need to develop a cure, a way to fix the DNA sequencing in these patients. That might be a long way off:

The study offers a new approach to schizophrenia research, which has been largely stagnant for decades.  ... "We now have a strong molecular handle, a pathway and a gene, to develop better models," he said. Which isn't to say a cure is right around the corner. "This is the first exciting clue, maybe even the most important we’ll ever have, but it will be decades" before a true cure is found," Hyman said. "Hope is a wonderful thing. False promise is not."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Is a hole opening up in the center of American politics?

Although Hillary Clinton (51.2%) still leads Bernie Sanders (38%) in the most recent national polls among Democratic primary voters, according to Real Clear Politics, Sen. Sanders is now well ahead in New Hampshire (51.6% to 36.8%), closing the gap in Iowa (41.5% to 47.9%) and ripe with momentum just about everywhere. 

In mid-November, Sanders had trailed Clinton in Iowa by 25%. He has narrowed that to just 6.4%. In early December, Sanders was ahead by just 2% in New Hampshire. That lead has now grown to 14.8%. And Mrs. Clinton was ahead nationally by 27.4%. She now leads by half that, 13.2%. 

If Sanders could keep up this momentum and win the Democratic nomination, a great void would open up in the middle of the political spectrum. 

Sanders is far to the left of the American center on most issues. The Republicans will likely nominate someone who is either far right and unlikeable (Cruz) or simply too extreme (Trump) for the comfort of centrist voters.

That suggests that we may have a serious independent challenger who will run as a middle-of-the-road centrist. Normally, that’s a losing proposition for the person who tries. He won’t have a party backing him, helping get out the votes. And the two major party nominees normally moderate their views in order to draw as much as they can from the center in the general election.

But, if it is Sanders and Cruz, they each have very little appeal to the center. Each has always been on the extremist fringe. They have long records of not compromising their views. They are ideologues. No matter how much they might try, they will never win over the American mainstream.

Trump is a slightly different story than Cruz. His problem in the general election is less about him being too conservative. He does not seem to have a fixed point of view. Some times he is pro-choice, other times pro-life. He has been against guns and for the NRA. He has been in favor of single-payer healthcare and completely against it. His flip-floppy ideology has made him unpopular among dyed-in-the-wool conservative intellectuals, who see Trump as a philosophical fraud, not one of their own.

Insofar as Trump is just seen as an egomaniacal oddball, Trump will probably have trouble winning votes in the center in the general election.  Most middle-of-the-road Americans don’t agree with Trump on kicking out all 12 million illegal aliens; they don’t like his prejudicial views toward all Muslims; and Trump will very likely not be able to win the votes of the largest growing bloc of American voters, Latinos. 

Additionally, in trying to win the votes of Republicans, Trump has adopted a very right-wing view on all social policies, including a strong opposition to abortion, gay marriage and gun control. Those positions are not popular in the American center. Trump may or may not change those positions after he wins the GOP nod. However, if he does, it will only alienate him from the right-wing. A last-minute conversion is unlikely to win him votes from the center.

So if it is Trump or Cruz against Sanders, look for someone to fill the middle. A possibility for that spot is Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor.

“Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire and former New York mayor, is considering making an independent bid for the presidency, a move that could mark yet another wild turn in a 2016 race that has already seen more than its share of them.

Three associates said that several factors have convinced him that a run outside of the Republican and Democratic party process is worth another look.

One is the possibility that the Republican ticket may be headed by a polarizing figure, such as his fellow New York billionaire Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), the two leaders of the race at this stage.

The other is that the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, may turn out to be a far weaker candidate than was once expected — and might even lose the nomination to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist whose mainstream appeal is in question.

If the right combination of those possibilities begins to look likely — something Bloomberg thinks could be clear in March, after the first big round of state primaries — it is possible they could create an opening for him to make a credible run as an independent.  …

In addition to his considerable financial resources, Bloomberg has a reputation as a skilled manager and political bridge builder. The onetime Republican has moderate views on social issues.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Does this signal an unbridgeable schism in the Republican Party?

The conservative magazine, National Review, has published a very long, multi-authored piece ranting against the candidacy of Donald Trump. In general, the various authors oppose the billionaire real estate magnate because he is not, in their views, a real conservative, and some question his character. He is likened to a Hitler or a Mussolini.

The problem with this line of attack from this group of conservative writers and thinkers is that Donald Trump’s supporters are not readers or thoughtful or in an intellectual sense conservatives. His increasingly large base likes Trump’s “give ‘em hell” style. They like his appeals to prejudice. They love Mr. Trump’s off-the-cuff unconventionality. None of them gives a damn what National Review thinks.

This sort of right-wing populism in the Republican Party goes back to 1964, when Strom Thurmond and several other racist Democrats became Republicans. It took a few decades, but eventually all of the white South became Republicans.

The vast majority of white, southern Republicans are not conservatives. They are populists who feed off of prejudice. Thurmond and other racists knew that 50 years ago. Trump seems to know that, today.

The big question is, if the Republican Party nominates a populist like Trump as president, will the religious and pro-business conservatives break away? And if they do, will it really matter? 

Here is a sampling of the conservative arguments in the NR piece againt Trump:

When conservatives desperately needed allies in the fight against big government, Donald Trump didn’t stand on the sidelines. He consistently advocated that your money be spent, that your government grow, and that your Constitution be ignored. … If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, there will once again be no opposition to an ever-expanding government.
—Glenn Beck

He’s effectively vowing to be an American Mussolini, concentrating power in the Trump White House and governing by fiat. It’s a vision to make the last 16 years of executive abuse of power seem modest.
—David Boaz

Until he decided to run for the GOP nomination a few months ago, Trump … was too distracted publicly raising money for liberals such as the Clintons; championing Planned Parenthood, tax increases, and single-payer health coverage; and demonstrating his allegiance to the Democratic party.
—L. Brent Bozell

The man has demonstrated an emotional immaturity bordering on personality disorder, and it ought to disqualify him from being a mayor, to say nothing of a commander-in-chief. Trump has made a career out of egotism, while conservatism implies a certain modesty about government. 
—Mona Charen

He doesn’t know the Constitution, history, law, political philosophy, nuclear strategy, diplomacy, defense, economics beyond real estate, or even, despite his low-level-mafioso comportment, how ordinary people live. 
—Mark Helprin

Trump’s brawling, blustery, mean-spirited public persona serves to associate conservatives with all the negative stereotypes that liberals have for decades attached to their opponents on the right. 
—Michael Medved

Trump’s vitriolic—and often racist and sexist—language about immigrants, women, the disabled, and others ought to concern anyone who believes that all persons, not just the “winners” of the moment, are created in God’s image.
—Russell Moore

Trump has made a living out of preying on and bullying society’s most vulnerable, with the help of government. He isn’t an outsider, but rather an unelected politician of the worst kind. He admits that he’s bought off elected officials in order get his way and to openly abuse the system.
—Katie Pavlich

The actual track record of crowd pleasers, whether Juan PerĂ³n in Argentina, Obama in America, or Hitler in Germany, is very sobering, if not painfully depressing. … A shoot-from-the-hip, bombastic showoff is the last thing we need or can afford.
—Thomas Sowell

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Were Tivet and Wilber, the first operators of a movie house in Davis, gays?

In his latest Davis History Today blog, John Lofland posts a long story regarding the history of movie houses in Davis. The piece was published in The Davis Enterprise in 1950, and, Lofland thinks, was likely written by former Enterprise editor and publisher William H. Scott, just a year before his death.

The occasion at hand in 1950 was the opening of the second version of the Varsity Theatre. That Streamline Moderne building, a City of Davis Landmark, is now used as an art house cinema. It replaced an older Varsity Theatre building located on Second Street, a block east of the current structure.

Here is the article’s opening:

“The very first regular movie house in Davis was established about 1909 or early in 1910. The event attracted little attention at the time and was not recorded in the paper, although it is well remembered by many of our older citizens. The site was a one-story brick building on the west side of Main Street at the corner now occupied by the Truffini Gas Station.”

I’m not exactly sure where this version of the Truffini Gas Station was. I’ve read later references to Joe Truffini (1907-1984) owning a station on B Street. If I had to guess, it was probably between 1st and 2nd on G Street (then known as Main informally and OIive Street formally).

The sentence in the article which caught my attention was this: 

“The promoters were Tivet and Wilber, two baby-faced gentlemen who were promptly nicknamed Pansy and Violet by the children of the town. The names stuck, and many never knew them by any others.”

Of note, it seems likely that Tivet and Wilber either were a couple of gay men or they were perceived to be. The reason that seems probable to me is that “pansy” is a derogatory term for a gay or effeminate male. I don’t know if “violet” had that same connotation. However, since pansies are in the violet family of flowers, pairing those two terms together may have been used for “a couple of gays.”

Regardless, Mr. Tivet and Mr. Wilber had a rather primitive operation in 1910 which, according to the 1950 article, only lasted a couple of months in Davis:

“Their equipment consisted of a projector and screen, some backless wooden benches and an ancient phonograph with a large horn. Their stock of records was strictly limited. Many who attended some of the shows still laugh about the song, ‘Over the Waves,’ which was played and replayed at every performance.

“The show did not last long — some say not more than a month or two — and the only distinction of the promoters is that they started something. While there may have been transient movie exhibitions in some of the village halls previous to them, none could lay claim to the intention, or at least the hope, of permanency.”

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Trump, while now more popular with Republicans, may not be electable with the rest of US voters

In a piece in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein reports that Donald Trump today is much more popular among Republican voters than he was several months ago. However, he remains widely unpopular among Democrats and independents, and were he to win the Republican nomination his inability to gain the votes of non-Republicans would likely lead to his defeat:

A widen­ing dis­tance between per­spect­ives about Don­ald Trump among Republicans and all oth­er voters—the “Trump gap”—presents GOP lead­ers with a conun­drum as the primar­ies approach. The phe­nomen­on can be charted across a series of na­tion­al polls, from which a con­sist­ent pat­tern has emerged in at­ti­tudes toward the GOP front-run­ner since he entered the race last sum­mer.

Re­pub­lic­an par­tis­ans and some oth­er con­ser­vat­ive-lean­ing con­stitu­en­cies are demon­strably warm­ing in their at­ti­tudes to­ward the blustery busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive. But views of Trump gen­er­ally re­main stag­nant, or are even de­teri­or­at­ing, among adults who identi­fy as Demo­crats or in­de­pend­ents.

While Trump’s inability thus far to please non-Republicans looks costly, the leading Democrat, Hillary Clinton, has her own favorability problems, though they are not as bad as Trump’s:

What makes this pat­tern es­pe­cially fraught for GOP strategists is that Hil­lary Clin­ton, the overwhelming  fa­vor­ite for the Demo­crat­ic nomination, also faces very sticky negative perceptions among voters out­side of her par­tis­an base. Yet for all of Clin­ton’s dif­fi­culties with in­de­pend­ent voters and oth­er swing con­stitu­en­cies, Trump’s stand­ing among the same groups usu­ally ranks lower in the same polls.

Brownstein reports that Trump has been increasing his popularity among GOP voters:

The mag­nitude of the change among Re­pub­lic­ans is even more ap­par­ent when con­sid­er­ing Trump’s net fa­vor­ab­il­ity: that is, the dif­fer­ence between the share of Re­pub­lic­ans who view him fa­vor­ably and un­fa­vor­ably. In the CNN/ORC poll, Trump’s net fa­vor­ab­il­ity has jumped from 9 to 43 per­cent­age points; in Quinnipiac polls, he’s moved from a net neg­at­ive rat­ing of 18 points to a net positive of 33; and even in the NBC/WSJ sur­vey, his net pos­it­ive rat­ing has nearly tripled from 9 to 25 per­cent­age points.

Because Hillary is hardly beloved, the contest in November may come down to which candidate can get his or her voters to show up in the polls, while those who don’t like either choose the lesser of two evils:

A race between two can­did­ates la­bor­ing un­der such cloudy pub­lic as­sess­ments might turn on which could do more to re­verse the neg­at­ive judg­ments evid­ent today. But it might also prove a uniquely neg­at­ive and bruis­ing con­test de­cided by which con­test­ant can more ef­fect­ively re­in­force the gap between their op­pon­ent’s strong stand­ing among their par­tis­ans—and far more tenu­ous po­s­i­tion with everyone else.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The CDC needs to take a good look at the scientific evidence on salt

A publication called Healthline has a CDC report up which claims, “Americans are consuming too much salt.” The trouble, according to the CDC, is that Americans eat a lot of processed foods which are loaded with sodium.

A new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that roughly 90 percent of people in the United States — regardless of age, race, or gender — consume more than the 2,300 mg daily recommended amount of sodium. That’s only a teaspoon of table salt.

CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden called it “alarming” that nine out of 10 adults and children consume too much salt. “The evidence is clear: too much sodium in our foods leads to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke,” Frieden said in a press release.

The evidence is clear? Really? Let’s see it. The CDC study assumes that evidence is there. However, its study only counts how much salt people are consuming. It never bothers to prove that salt consumption causes heart disease, strokes or even high blood pressure.

CDC director Tom Frieden may be alarmed, but he presents zero evidence whatsoever that “too much sodium in our foods” leads to any negative health consequences. The science is simply not there. If anything, there is a modest amount of evidence which suggests the opposite — a diet too low in sodium may cause health problems.

This week a meta-analysis of seven studies involving a total of 6,250 subjects in the American Journal of Hypertension found no strong evidence that cutting salt intake reduces the risk for heart attacks, strokes or death in people with normal or high blood pressure. 

In May European researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the less sodium that study subjects excreted in their urine—an excellent measure of prior consumption—the greater their risk was of dying from heart disease. These findings call into question the common wisdom that excess salt is bad for you, but the evidence linking salt to heart disease has always been tenuous.

More from Scientific American:

Intersalt, a large study published in 1988, compared sodium intake with blood pressure in subjects from 52 international research centers and found no relationship between sodium intake and the prevalence of hypertension. In fact, the population that ate the most salt, about 14 grams a day, had a lower median blood pressure than the population that ate the least, about 7.2 grams a day. 

In 2004 the Cochrane Collaboration, an international, independent, not-for-profit health care research organization funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, published a review of 11 salt-reduction trials. Over the long-term, low-salt diets, compared to normal diets, decreased systolic blood pressure (the top number in the blood pressure ratio) in healthy people by 1.1 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 0.6 mmHg. That is like going from 120/80 to 119/79. 

The review concluded that "intensive interventions, unsuited to primary care or population prevention programs, provide only minimal reductions in blood pressure during long-term trials." A 2003 Cochrane review of 57 shorter-term trials similarly concluded that "there is little evidence for long-term benefit from reducing salt intake."

Despite a lack of evidence, the CDC has continued its campaign against salt. Here is more from the Healthline report:

The CDC says that 86 percent of people with hypertension still consume too much sodium even though they ingest less salt than people without the condition.

Although this finding by the CDC seems to contradict the notion that it is beneficial to reduce salt intake, it raises a related question: Is a person who does not have hypertension, but consumes more than the recommended amount of sodium in his diet, more likely to acquire high blood pressure down the road if he keeps eating “too much” salt? If the answer is no — and the evidence suggests it is — then why is the CDC recommending a low salt diet to people who don’t have high blood pressure?

Because sodium is so ubiquitous in the American diet, the CDC says a key strategy in lowering sodium intake is to reduce the sodium in the food supply, which some food companies have already begun doing. Many processed foods are now available in lower sodium versions.

This sounds a lot like the long-accepted, but purely bogus idea that it is better to eat a low-fat diet. There is no good evidence for that, either, and there never has been any.

A common example of how crazy our system of justice can be

The president of the United States stole his dog's football?

You know you are a leftist if you think we should not be holding unmedicated psychotic people in locked psychiatric facilities. You know you are a rightist if you think crazy people who commit crazy crimes belong in prison. You know you are sane if you think our system is crazy.

A fairly good example of a crazy person who is going to go to prison but should have been kept in a locked psychiatric facility is Scott D. Stockert of Dickinson, North Dakota. Here is what the Washington Post reports he is accused of doing

Officials in Washington say they’ve arrested a North Dakota man who allegedly traveled to the nation’s capital to kidnap a dog belonging to President Barack Obama.

D.C. Superior Court documents say Secret Service agents interviewed Scott D. Stockert of Dickinson, North Dakota, at a Washington hotel after receiving information that he was on his way to the capital to kidnap a “pet” owned by the first family. The first family has two Portuguese water dogs, Bo and Sunny. Officials arrested Stockert after finding weapons in his car. … Agents searched the truck and found a shotgun and rifle as well as a machete, a billy club and ammunition. 

… Stockert told agents that he was “Jesus Christ” and that his parents were President John F. Kennedy and actress Marilyn Monroe and that he came to Washington to announce he was running for president.

The great mystery to me is what ever happened to the notion of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Might this open up an avenue to cure a whole host of genetic diseases and disorders?

Members of the UT Southwestern team whose research successfully halted progression of a form of muscular dystrophy in mice included (l-r) Dr. Chengzu Long, Dr. Eric Olson, Dr. Rhonda Bassel-Duby, Dr. Leonela Amoasii, John Shelton, and Alex Mireault.

If this really results in a cure for a disease — in this case Duchenne muscular dystrophy — and not just a reduction in symptoms, the breakthrough reported by Science Daily is huge news:

Using a new gene-editing technique, a team of scientists from UT Southwestern Medical Center stopped progression of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in young mice. … In the study published in Science, UTSW researchers used a gene-editing approach to permanently correct the DMD mutation that causes the disease in young mice.

In 2014, Dr. Eric Olson's team first used this technique -- called CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing -- to correct the mutation in the germ line of mice and prevent muscular dystrophy. This paved the way for novel genome editing-based therapeutics in DMD.

Although there are not too many cases of DMD — about 1 in 5,000 boys — there are a large number of highly debilitating genetic disorders, and I wonder if the same type of approach with a CRISPR/Cas9 system might be able to find cures for all of them.

The CRISPR genome-editing technology, which was developed by a researcher at University of California at Berkeley, was picked as the "Breakthrough of the Year" scientific development by Science.

"The recent groundbreaking discoveries from the Olson laboratory using genome editing to correct the genetic mutation that causes DMD have accelerated the race to find a cure for this deadly disease," said Dr. Pradeep Mammen, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Co-Director of the UTSW Wellstone Center. "The challenge now lies before Wellstone Center researchers to translate these discoveries in the mouse model of DMD into a therapy for patients with DMD."



Only three days after I posted this information about possibly curing DMD with CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing and suggesting that it could be used in a similar way to cure other genetic disorders, it is being reported here that inherited blindness might also be cured by the same genome editing technique:

A research team at the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute focused on inherited retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease with no known cure that can lead to blindness. The researchers used a technique known as CRISPR/Cas9 to remove a genetic mutation that causes the blindness disease. CRISPR/Cas9 is adapted from a strategy used by bacteria to fight invading viruses.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I’m not shocked to learn that “a joint poll between the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research” found that by a two-to-one margin Americans currently favor allowing the government to tap into the communications devices (phones, computers, etc.) of private parties, according to a report published by

“The results show that 56% of Americans support warrantless wiretapping, while 28% oppose it. From a political angle, 67% of Republicans favor it, while 55% of Democrats do. Meanwhile, Independents are far more divided, with 40% in favor, and 35% opposed.”

There are two reasons this result is unsurprising: First, there have been several high-profile terrorist attacks the past few months (notably Paris and San Bernardino), and as a result, civilians hope wiretapping might help prevent another attack, if the government can snoop on the bad guys before they act; and second, most people, rightly, assume that the government won’t be listening in on their conversations. They will be focusing on bearded men in bedsheets. 

Yet we have the Fourth Amendment for a reason. That provision of our Constitution states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

So that, when the government decides it is necessary to tap into someone’s conversation, that is not your innocent discussion with your spouse, for example. It is only constitutionally allowable for the government to wiretap if it has evidence that you are likely involved in a criminal act.

In the case of possible terrorists, it’s perfectly okay for the FBI, NSA or some other law enforcement agency to wiretap their phones or computers, as long as the agents have probable cause and they get a judge to issue a valid warrant. That’s not too high a hurdle. And therefore, it’s not unreasonable to enforce the constitutional prohibition against warrantless wiretaps.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Will there ever be a great white running back in the NFL again?

Watching the performance of Stanford's sophomore running back, Christian McCaffrey, in the Rose Bowl, it seems possible that for the first time in decades there might be a good white running back in the NFL. Unlike most great white college running backs of recent vintage, McCaffrey has NFL speed. He uses that on explosive runs from scrimmage, catching passes and returning kicks.

In the Rose Bowl today, he stood out from all the others on the field, as ESPN reported:

"Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, already the holder of the NCAA single-season all-purpose yardage record, broke the Rose Bowl mark in that category during Stanford's 45-16 rout of Iowa on Friday. McCaffrey finished with 368 all-purpose yards, besting the old mark by Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis, who racked up 346 yards against Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. McCaffrey also became the first player in Rose Bowl history with at least 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving."

Although he will not be eligible for the NFL draft until 2017, McCaffrey finished second this year in the Heisman Trophy vote.  McCaffrey set the all-time NCAA football record in 2015 for all-purpose yards in a season. In 13 games he had 3,496 yards, besting the old mark set by Barry Sanders in 1988. Sanders accounted for 3,250 yards in 11 games.

It's likely that if Stanford had won one more game, he would have won the Heisman over Alabama's Derrick Henry, who won the trophy with 2,152 all-purpose yards. McCaffrey beat Mr. Henry by a whopping 1,344 all-purpose yards.

It is, of course, trivial that there have been no great white running backs in the NFL in a long time. Over the last 30 seasons, not one white has finished in the top 10 in yards rushing. The last Caucasian running back to finish in the top 10 in that category was Craig James in 1985, who was 9th best. And it's not as if Mr. James was a great pro back. He played only five seasons in the NFL after a stellar college career at Southern Methodist, and in his last two seasons only ran for 25 yards combined.

While it has been 31 seasons since Craig James had his one good year, it has been 54 seasons since Jim Taylor, a white fullback for the dynastic Green Bay Packers, won the NFL rushing title. Taylor played in the same era as the great Jim Brown, who led the NFL in rushing 8 times in his 9 year career, and in 4 of those seasons, Taylor finished second in rushing.

The reason I think so few whites -- or really no whites for decades -- can play running back at a top level in the NFL is the lack of speed. There are some fast white guys, but they are normally too small to handle the punishment a running back must take in the NFL. Most of the best NFL running backs have explosive speed -- where they can accelerate from a standstill to top speed very quickly when a hole opens up. But in order to survive, they almost always have huge thighs and a big ass, even if they are not very tall. They need that beef in their center of gravity to survive the hits they take from 250-330 pound defensive players.

Not too many years ago, Stanford produced a top-flight white running back named Toby Gerhart. In the 2010 draft, Gerhart was selected in the second round, a high pick for a running back. Unlike McCaffrey, Gerhart has an NFL running back's body. He's roughly the same height as Christian McCaffrey, but he weighs 33 pounds more, and he looks like most of that weight is in his thighs and butt.

Yet Gerhart has been a bust in the NFL. He's never appeared anywhere on an NFL leaderboard. His problem, I think, is that he lacks explosive speed. It's not that he is slow, not that he cannot put up a decent (though not great) time in the 40-yard dash. It's that when he is handed the ball and a hole opens up for a millisecond, Gerhart does not have the explosive burst to race through that hole and gain 10 or more yards. He's the kind of sluggish back who can get 3 or 4 yards, but only if a big gap in the defense is created by his offensive line.

From what I have seen, Christian McCaffrey has enough speed, even explosive speed, to play running back in the NFL. He's clearly faster than his father, Ed McCaffrey, who was for 13 seasons the prototypical white wide receiver or possession receiver. That is, Christian's father did not have great speed. Ed had outstanding hands and could be counted on to make catches of 10-15 yards. He was not the playmaker type who could break free for a 30 yard or longer reception. He did not get a lot of yards after the catch.

The big question mark with Christian at the next level is his size. He is 6' 1", but weighs just 201 pounds and does not appear to be particularly thick in his thighs or ass. So I have to wonder, if he plays running back in the pros, whether he will be able to take the punishing hits of NFL linebackers and defensive linemen.

If professional scouts and general managers who will be grading McCaffrey for the draft see his size as a limitation, he will either be drafted much later than his stats suggest or he will have to play another position. I suspect Christian might be converted into a slot receiver who is occasionally used to run the ball on trick plays or pitch outs. If he is forced to change positions, it's not as if that is unique. Very often in the NFL, great athletes who succeed at one position in college learn that in the NFL their athleticism is better suited to another position.

A reasonable comparison with McCaffrey might be Julian Edelman, a slot wide receiver for the New England Patriots. Edelman was an outstanding quarterback in college. However, he did not have the body of an NFL QB -- in fact, Edelman is built about the same as McCaffrey, 6' 0", 198 pounds. So when the Patriots drafted him, they converted Edelman to a position which better suited his athletic body.

Christian McCaffrey is a great athlete. There is no question about that. But will his athletic ability enable him to play running back in the NFL? I doubt it.