The health of the honey bee

First article for Australian Science:

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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Uncategorized


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The value of venom

New article for The Australia Times Science magazine:


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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


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My nice list

I have recently found myself subconsciously devising a list in my head of people that have gone out of their way to help me. I’m not good at asking for help, as a general rule, but I have been struck by the amount of people that have been willing to give me a hand, prompted or not. People who don’t even know me. Experts that have offered up their skills, feedback and patience. I find myself writing more and more thank you emails.
I know their reasons are not altruistic. I know it’s a favour investment. For examples, it’s in an editor’s best interest to strike a decent relationship with the writer, and researchers want their work correctly represented. It may be the work of a skilled procrastinator, where helping someone who is struggling at the start of things achieves far more instant gratification than their own work. Or perhaps someone did the same thing for them and they’re shrugging the guilt from a debt that’s not a debt.
But the reasons are still heartwarming. They are striving for truth and excellence. They are routing for the underdog. They have been inspired to act with benevolence. And it makes me happy that whole networks are based upon exchanges of good deeds.
I know it won’t stay like that – the more established you are the more hoops you have to jump through for people to be on your side. I know this from personal experience with music. If no one’s heard of them I’ll promote them wildly, forgive the raw sounds and odd mistakes. But once they are famous… well I can’t help but question whether they really deserved to get there. It’s a stupid way to think; a vestige of teenage years where refusing the popular, opting for the obscure to demonstrate musical ingenuity, didn’t make you a dick.
Anyway, that’s the hope, isn’t it? To become established. I guess the ultimate thank you would be to be able to sit there from the top of your ladder and give all those people who helped you on the way recognition; so they can sit there and feel, rightly, all warm and smug for having played a part. And then return the favour by helping the next guys.
But there’s a long way to go for me to get to that place (wherever it is), and a fair amount of doubt whether I’ll reach it. So in the meantime, how do I say thank you? How do you say “you’ve just made the world a better place”, “you’ve made my week,” “I’ve been smiling all day because of the good deed for humanity that you performed” etc, without sounding like a slightly scary kiss ass who needs to get out more? Is all I can really do for now write a really nice thank you email? Is that enough? No doubt an opportunity will arise where I can do something for them, and maybe the world will throw a little karma their way.
But I’d like to hope it is enough for them to know it has not gone unnoticed. So thank you. Thank you to those who can remember what it was like to be at the start. Thank you to all those people who encourage kindness, advocate ethics; who bestow faith in mankind, and in the future. Whether it be a point in the right direction or imparting priceless advice that will stick with me forever, thank you for splattering my path with goodwill.


Posted by on July 11, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Do you need your eyes to see?

My first article for The Australia Times:

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Posted by on June 27, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Locking up malaria

ImageA mosquito tornado in Portugal. Photo by Filipa Scarpa

Mosquitoes are among the peskiest of insects. I am that person who gets bitten when no one else has. My friends actually use me as their own mosquito repellent – though I lure them to a spot, I keep all the attention off them.

Mosquitoes are a pain. Malaria is a killer.

Human being’s greatest enemy in fact; mosquitoes spread malaria around tropical and sub-tropical countries. There are over 200 million cases each year, slaying over 650,000 people, most of which are in the African region, and most of them children under five.

Symptoms include fever, aches and vomiting. Malaria becomes life threatening when it disrupts the blood supply to vital organs.

ImagePhoto by Ragnhild Brosvik

Contaminated female mosquitoes transmit a parasite called Plasmodium. Once bitten, these parasites pass through the liver and infect red blood cells. Inside the red blood cells they multiply like mad, causing the cell to rupture.

Plasmodium is a slippery target for potential vaccines because different proteins are produced in each stage of this cycle.

A vital component in the current treatment is artemisinin. But there are increasing reports of resistance to it. The threat of insecticide resistance is also rapidly growing.

There are, however, some positive things happening.

A recent study examined children in Tanzania with natural immunity and found antibodies in their blood latched onto a previously unknown gene. This gene, PfSEA-1, is needed by parasites in order to escape from inside red blood cells. The antibody locks them in there.

A lead researcher in the study, Jonathan Kurtis, likens the process to “trap[ping] them inside a burning house”.

Kurtis explains:

“Many researchers are trying to find ways to develop a malaria vaccine by preventing the parasite from entering the red blood cell, and here we found a way to block it from leaving the cell once it has entered. If it’s trapped in the red blood cell, it can’t go anywhere – it can’t do any further damage.”

Initial trials on mice are promising. When infected with a deadly form of malaria, the vaccinated rodents lived almost twice as long as their unvaccinated buddies.

Tests on monkeys start next month and if successful, tests on people could begin within 18 months.

While it won’t prevent malaria, it will reduce symptoms. It can be used in conjunction with other treatments, attacking all stages of the cycle of infection.

It’s a really long way away still.

Luckily, a new vaccine, RTS,S, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, is expected to come out soon. It has been shown to almost halve the number of malaria cases in young children and reduce the malaria cases in infants by around a quarter.

It’s grand stuff. But Australia doesn’t suffer from malaria, so if scientists could find a way to stop them biting in the first place, I can stop having nightmares about mosquito tornadoes.

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Posted by on May 30, 2014 in Uncategorized


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New Zealand shrinks away from legal high limelight

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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


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New Zealand bans animal testing for legal highs

New Zealand can’t seem to take enough steps backward from their Psychoactive Substances Act. The law was passed last year in an attempt to gain control of new psychoactive substances (NPS). Prior to the Act, NPS would be legal until the government chased it into illegitimacy. By tweaking the molecular structures of the drugs, the producers were always one step ahead. Under New Zealand’s new legislation, manufacturers have to provide evidence that the drug they sell causes minimal harm.

The decision to ban animal testing for recreational drugs means that manufacturers cannot pass the safety requirements in New Zealand, but must go to other countries for their testing.

Enter the age old animal testing debate.

The ethics scientists follow are that animals should only be used if there is a distinct benefit to individuals or society. They follow principles that aim to reduce their impact, such as taking into account well-being, reducing stress and using alternative methods where possible.

The drugs in question are for recreational use. Is this a distinct benefit to individuals or society? It’s hardly searching for a cure for cancer, is it? Should we put innocent animals through potential suffering because we are a species that likes to get high? At the top of the chain, we have a responsibility to protect those in our care.

The banning wouldn’t have taken place if the only animals tested were rats, but the Health Department recommended testing on at least two species. Why are rats so different from rabbits? The National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia believe that justification lies with differences in the experience of pain and distress, but there are other values to consider, such as intelligence and self-consciousness. Animals shouldn’t be put through undue suffering, but it is hard to know where the line is when an animal cannot tell us if they are in pain, and their experiences differ so greatly from ours. There is much we do not know, but how do we find out without doing research?

The questions these investigations try to answer are far larger than the animal itself; what we know about the world is affected enormously by research. For instance, Terry Wheeler, a museum director and entomologist, recently wrote about the crucial role museum collections provide in animal study. Without killing an animal and studying it, how can conservation strategies be launched, new species discovered, climate change tracked or pathogens studied?

There is no viable alternative to animal testing. Safer drugs cannot be developed without it. Unless people stop taking drugs, the alternative is that NPS will be tested on users.

The whole point in the Act was to reduce the harm caused by NPS. By taking control and regulating the market, drugs were taken out of the hands of criminals and placed in heavily monitored areas. But now New Zealand are refusing to let that happen in their own country, and instead allowing it to happen ‘elsewhere’, thus washing their hands of any control of it.

The ancient battle between harming the innocent and a necessary evil rages for good reason, but though we grapple with the immorality that animals should suffer for our consumption, I guess it’s them or us.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Uncategorized


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