Meat and Cancer: Is Meat Going to Disappear from our Diet?

Two days ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that’s probably still causing the meat industry leaders to quiver in their star-studded boots. The agency has convened together a working group of 22 experts, who reviewed more than 800 studies on the association between cancer and red and processed meat. The final results were phrased unequivocally: eating just 50 grams of processed meat every day makes one 18% more likely to develop colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The obvious question that rises now deals with the future of meat eating. Are we about to see the demise of hamburger joints? Is McDonald’s about to go down in flames, along with its beef patties?

Probably not, at least in the short term, for a few reasons.

Reasons for Meat to Stay

I divide the reasons that meat will remain in culture into two different categories, each coming from a different audience: the reactions in the public, and the innovations coming from start-ups.

The Public

Will the public forego meat? That is one possible outcome, but it seems extremely radical in the short term. Even now, articles in journals and magazines bring sense and nuances into the WHO’s declaration: they explain that while an 18% increased chance to develop cancer sounds frightening, the actual numbers are much more nuanced. When Cancer Research UK crunched the numbers, it found out that –

“…out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

Now, that sounds much less scary, doesn’t it?

The articles also explain the rationale behind the WHO’s five categories of potential cancer-inducing agents and chemicals. In Group 1 you can find the agents that the experts are certain of their potential to cause cancer, but there is no distinction between the different levels of harm caused by each substance! That means that tobacco and processed meat exist side by side in Group 1, even though smoking kills more than one million people every year, whereas processed meat kills ‘only’ 34,000 people every year. And guess what? People are still smoking, with 17.8% of all U.S. adults smoking cigarettes!

And that leads us to another matter: people are willing to do things that are harmful to them in the long run. We go out to the sun, even though the sun’s radiation is also in the Group 1. Women take contraceptives to make sure they do not get pregnant – despite the known increased risk of cancer. And of course, 51.9% of all Americans aged 12 or older consume alcohol, even though the ethanol in the drink has also been shown to cause cancer. So you’ll pardon me if I don’t stop investing in meat production anytime soon (figuratively, since I don’t invest in the stock market; I’m a wary futurist).

All of the above does not mean that we won’t let go of meat eventually, in the long term. But at least in the short term, much more needs to happen in order to make people radically change their dietary habits. Culture, as you may remember from a previous post about pace-layer analysis, is very slow indeed to change.

The New Meat Start-Ups

Whenever human beings run into a wall that stands in the way of their desires, they either break it down or find ways to go around it. The most obvious solution in this case would be to develop new kinds of cooking and preservation methods for meat that do not involve the dangerous chemicals highlighted by the WHO. We can expect to see hamburger joints coming up with hamburgers made from unprocessed meat, possibly with an emphasis on freshness. And since it seems that barbecuing the meat can also cause cancer, other types of dishes like goulash might gain popularity in place of steaks.

While I don’t know what innovations will come up in the meat industry, I feel confident that they will arrive. Where there is great need, there is also great money – and innovators go where the money is.

Conclusion

Even in the face of the WHO’s declaration, there doesn’t seem to be much of a chance that people will stop eating meat anytime soon. Note the emphasis on “soon”. It is entirely possible that a movement will rise out of this declaration, and urge people to let go of meat altogether. Such a movement will probably base itself on panic-mongering, distorting the evidence to lead people to the belief that all meat is bad for them. But even this kind of a movement will take time to develop and gather political and social power, which means the meat industry probably still has at least one generation’s lifetime – twenty years – to survive. Whether you like this assessment or not depends on your previous beliefs.

I would like to draw attention to one last issue at steak (pardon the pun). The WHO’s committee reported that – “The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years.” This innocent comment reveals once again the importance of conducting research and collecting data long into the future. Most research today only lasts as long as it takes the student obtain his or her graduate degree, which makes it very difficult to collect data over time.

This is a topic for another post, really, so for now I’ll just end by saying that there is a very real need to support and fund lengthier research. Research that lasts decades provides the best evidence about the impact of nutrition and lifestyle over our lives, and it should be encouraged in the scientific community.

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First Human Undergoes a Genetic Engineering Treatment to Reverse Aging

Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.

BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.

I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.

I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.

Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.

Elizabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva. Image originally from BioViva.

Are They for Real?

After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?

While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.

The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.

That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.

“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.

The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.

In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”

And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?

“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”

The Future of Aging

So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.

“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”

This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.

Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”

This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.

Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”

As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”

Conclusion

It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.

The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”

Smarter, stronger, faster… and younger?

Sign me in.

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Featured image at top of article is originally from Flickr user Arileu 

Nobel Prize: Should We Automate the Winners Selection Process?

Today, the Nobel Prize winners in the field of medicine were announced. All three winners are esteemed scientists who have discovered “therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases”, according to the Nobel committee. This is doubtlessly true: two of the winners’ discoveries have led to the development of a drug that has nearly brought an end to river blindness; the third scientist developed a drug that has reduced mortality from malaria by 30 percent in children, and saves over 100,000 lives each year.

I could go on about the myriad of ways in which medicine is improving the human condition worldwide, or about how we’re eradicating some diseases that have inflicted the human race since times unknown. I won’t do that. The progress of medicine is self-evident, and in any case is a matter for a longer blog post. Instead, let us focus on a different venture: the attempt to forecast the Nobel Prize winners.

The Citation Laureates

Every year since 2002, the Thomson Reuters media and information corporation makes a shot at forecasting the Nobel laureates. To that end, they analyze the most highly cited research papers in every field, and the authors behind them. One’s prestige as a scientist largely comes from high citation rate – i.e. the number of times people have referred to your work when conducting their own research. It’s therefore clear why this single simple parameter, so easily quantified, could serve as a good base for forecasting the annual Nobel winners.

So far, it looks like Thomson Reuters have done quite well with their forecasts. In every year except 2004, they have successfully identified at least one Nobel Prize winner in all the scientific fields: Physiology or Medicine, Physics, Chemistry and Economics. Overall, Thomson Reuters has “correctly forecast 21 of 52 science Nobel Prizes awarded over the last 13 years”.

It is fascinating for me that by working with tools for the analysis of big data, one could reach such a high rate of success in forecasting the decisions made by the Nobel committees. But here’s the deeper issue, in my opinion: Thomson Reuters clearly intends only to forecast the Nobel winners – but is it possible that their selection is more accurate than that of the Nobel committee?

The Limits of Committees

How is the Nobel Prize decided? Every year, thousands of distinguished professors from around the world are asked to nominate colleagues who deserve the prize. Each committee for the scientific prizes ends up with 250-350 nominees, whom they then screen and analyze in order to come up with only a few recommendations that will be presented to the 615 members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – and they will vote for the final winners.

Note that the rate-limiting step in the process is contained in the hands of the committee members. The number of members changes between each committee, but generally ranges between 6 and 8 members in each committee. And as anyone who has ever taken part of any committee discussion knows, there are usually only two or three people who really influence and shape the debate. In other words, if you want to have a real chance at winning the Nobel Prize in your field, you had best develop your connections with the most influential members of the appropriate committee.

Please note that I’m not accusing the Nobel committees of fraud or nepotism. However, we know that even the best and most reliable experts in the world are subject to human biases – sometimes without even realizing that. The human mind, after all, is a strangely convoluted place, with most of the decision making process being handled subconsciously. Individual decision makers are therefore biased by nature, as are small committees. The Nobel Laureates selection process, therefore, is biased – which I guess we all know anyway – and even worse, it remains under wraps, and the actual discussions taking place are not shared by the public for criticism.

Examples for (alleged) bias can be found easily (heck, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject). Henry Eyring allegedly failed to receive the Nobel Prize because of his Mormon faith; Paul Krugman received the prize because of (again, allegedly) left-leaning bias of the committee; and when the scientist behind HPV discovery was selected to receive the prize, an anticorruption investigation followed soon after since two senior figures on the committee had strong links with a pharmaceutical company dealing with HPV vaccines.

The Wisdom of Data

Now consider the core of the Thomson Reuters process. The company’s analysts go over all the papers and citations in an automated fashion, conducted by algorithms that they define. The algorithms are only biased if they’re created that way – which means that the algorithms and the entire process will need to be fully transparent. The algorithms can cut down the list of potential candidates into a mere dozen or so – and then allow the Royal Swedish Academy do the rest of the work and vote for the top ones.

Is this process necessarily better than the committee? Obviously, many flaws still abound. The automated process could put more emphasis on charismatic ‘rock stars’ of the scientific world, for example, and neglect the more down-to-earth scientists. Or it could focus on those scientists who are incredibly well-connected and who have many collaborations, while leaving aside those scientists who only made one big impact in their field. However, proper programming of the algorithms – and accurately defining the parameters and factors behind the selection process – should take care of these issues.

Does this process, in which an automated algorithm picks a human winner, seems weird to you? It shouldn’t, because it’s happening on the World Wide Web every second. Each time you’re doing a Google search, the computer goes over millions of possible results and only shows you the ‘winners’ at the top, according to factors that include their links to each other (i.e. number of citations), the reputation of the site, and other parameters. Google has brought this selection process down to a form of art – and an accurate science.

Why not do that to the Nobel Prize as well?

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Your Nobel Forecast

Over the next week, the recipients of the Nobel Prize will be announced one after the other. Would you like to impress your friends by forecasting the recipients? Here’s an infographic made by Thomson Reuters and detailing their forecasts for 2015. Good luck to everyone in it!

Listing of the top forecasts made by Thomson Reuters for each scientific Nobel Prize category in 2015. Originally from Thomson Reuters.
Listing of the top forecasts made by Thomson Reuters for each scientific Nobel Prize category in 2015.
Originally from Thomson Reuters.
Credit: the Nobel Prize medal's image at the top of the post was taken by Adam Baker on Flickr.