Women's Health Base

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Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Fight for fairness

Posted by hannahflynn on June 5, 2011


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Experts back HPV test for cervical smears

Posted by hannahflynn on January 26, 2010

Experts have shown that HPV testing instead of cervical smears may be the best first line of defence in cervical screening.

Results published in the Lancet Oncolcogy showed HPV testing could reduce the number of cervical screenings which a woman need to attend. Researchers compared HPV testing with cytology in 81,220 women aged 25 to 60. In the second round of testing,  done in women who had tested positive for HPV, nine invasive cancers were found in the cytology group.

Combining HPV and cytology testing did not improve sensitivity, suggesting HPV testing alone was responsible for the increased detection of abnormalities.

However, switching to HPV testing will only be recommented for women over the age of 35, as in the  younger age group, HPV testing led to an over-diagnosis of regressive lesions, which, if treated surgically, can cause problems during pregnancy.

Professor Kitchener, who chairs the UK’s cervical screening advisory group, said in Pulse magazine: ‘In an era with a vaccinated cohort of women, there is a higher chance women will test negative for HPV and you can confine cytology to women who are HPV positive.

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Blog Action Day 2009

Posted by hannahflynn on October 15, 2009

To celebrate Blog Action Day 2009, here are two of my articles which were published on the interweb today:

An explanatory introduction to the UN Climate Conference, COP-15 in Copenhagen, published by IslamOnline.com: http://twurl.cc/1q89

A news story on the aquisition of Solel by Siemens, an important step for solar thermal technology, published by RenewableEnergyWorld.com: http://twurl.cc/1q8a

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15andcounting love Women’s Health Base!

Posted by hannahflynn on September 16, 2009

This blog has been featured in the 15andcounting campaign’s blog.

They are a campaign group set up petition governments to make young people’s sexual health a policy priority and are well worth a look.

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Who’s job is it anyway?

Posted by hannahflynn on June 21, 2009

“What is crystal clear is that he didn’t spot how the growing size and increasing connectedness of financial institutions was making the Bank of England’s sterling work in controlling inflation the equivalent of re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.” said Robert Peston on Mervyn King’s attempts to stabilise inflation last year.

The BBC Business Editor may have had a point about King’s feeble attempts to nudge and poke the economy into shape, but following last week’s explosive Mansion House events, we have to ask if the Governor of the Bank of England had enough power to do any thing else? Last week King said it was not clear how the Bank could complete its legal duties “if we can do no more than issue sermons or organise burials.” hammering a final nail in the coffin for the tripartite system of bank regulation.

The legal duty to the Bank of England to analyse financial threats was only handed over last year, some could argue it was a token gesture when the depths the recession could take the economy became clear. Then, this month, while reform plans were being unveiled in both the UK and the USA, King made it clear he desired more authority to be able to tell the banks what to do. This is a significant departure from the current regulatory system, introduced by Gordon Brown in 1997, which has up until now been defended by the Labour party. The Liberal Democrats are behind King, but the Conservatives have failed to deliver any detailed proposals…yet.

This is an interesting and brave response by King, as he has said exactly what the Labour Party and the banks did not want to hear. If the Bank of England can not tell the banks what to do, then who can?

Darling has responded to the financial crisis by tinkering with Brown’s holy trinity of the Financial Services Authority (FSA), the Bank of England and the Treasury: the tripartite system which King claims does not stand up to the power of the banks. Darling has also refused to blame the current regulatory system for being responsible for the financial crisis, instead insisting the bank boardroom is the first line of defence against risky decision making.

The speech by Darling at Mansion House resonated strongly in the wake of sweeping reforms by the US Treasury which many claim are being made far too late. However, perhaps now is the time Darling should heed the admission by the US Treasury that: “the government could have done more to prevent many of the problems from growing out of control and threatening the stability of the financial system”, as we await the effects of the UK reforms over the next couple of months.

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Growing our medicines

Posted by hannahflynn on May 26, 2009

Dr Julian Ma believes the silence on the plant biotechnology front over the past couple of years has been intentional. “Every time we do raise our heads above the parapet you do get shot down” he claims. As the head of Pharma-Planta, a Europe wide consortium of plant scientists devoted to developing plant-produced treatments and vaccines, he feels this was partly to do with the media coverage of the subject, “it was very antagonistic, so a lot of people kept their heads low.”

Back in 2004 when Pharma-Planta was launched the possibility of growing pharmaceuticals in genetically engineered crops was greeted with a lukewarm reception from the public. €12 million was pumped into a consortium of labs across Europe to produce plant crops which could be used for ‘pharming’. Clinical trials were due to start this year, in 2009.

However, progress has been rapid during these past four years with a number of new technologies about to enter clinical trials. Ma also thinks the silence has given the group some time for a shake up. “Plant scientists have little commercial nouse with no idea what it takes to get these technologies onto a commercial platform.” he says. “It’s taken a couple of years to get rid of that mindset.”

After years of low expression levels, rows about patents and mixed opinion on the commercial viability of genetically engineering novel plants crops, pharmaceutical crops appear to be overtaking food crops on most counts. Notable food crops engineered to improve nutritional value of the plants like golden rice, failed to produce high enough levels of these substances to be of any use. This has not been a great concern for pharmaceutical crops. The levels of expression required to be financially profitable are lower than is needed for genetically modified food crops.  

Cheaper and quicker

Last year researchers Charles Arntzen and Richard Levy released results for the first commercial plant-derived vaccine. They had produced a vaccine for non-Hodgekins lymphoma which had successfully completed phase one of its clinical trial. Their success came from a new approach. After isolating antigens from a lymphoma patient, tobacco mosaic virus was used to infect tobacco plants. A week later the plants were harvested, the antigen was purified and a vaccine was produced. The study started after Levy became frustrated with the time it was taking to produce vaccines through conventional animal cell cultures. Then he found the total time taken to produce a vaccine from biopsy to treatment was three or four months: half the time it takes to produce a vaccine from animal cell cultures (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105 p 10131).  

Ma agrees the use of viral expression systems like tobacco mosaic virus offers hope, “Currently the most promising systems are transient expression systems, driving expression from a virally derived plasmid.” He explains, “This infects the plant cell [where] it divides like a virus inside the cell, so we get multiple copies.”

The plant species used are also important, though currently a diverse number of plants are being used. This is due to the growing number of patents on plant technologies. Around the time of the launch of Pharma-Planta, Ma and his lab looked at which plants were best for their technologies, “We ignored freedom to operate – we took the patent situation out of it. We found tobacco and maize were the best plants to use as they offered the highest expression of the products we were trying to produce.

“But a number of plants are currently being used. Carrot cells are being used by a company in Israel. That’s about to complete its final phase three trial. Human insulin grown in safflower is also close to a commercial lease right now.”

Sembiosys the biotechnology company behind the insulin producing safflower crop highlight the fact that growing human insulin in a safflower crop will reduce manufacturing costs by up to 70 percent, and product cost by 40 percent. This also means just one acre of safflower is needed to produce enough insulin to treat 2,500 patients for a year. A figure not to be sniffed at considering insulin use has tripled in Europe in the last 12 years.


Though it is more than four years on, opposition hasn’t changed much. GeneWatch and other environmental groups including Greenpeace are still opposed to any GM technology on the grounds using food crops for non-food products is high risk. Ma does not agree with their conclusions saying that the tiny scale on which pharmaceutical crops are grown compared with genetically engineered food crops means a lot of their risk assessment is outdated. He notes, “Pharmaceuticals are high value, they are for a very tiny niche market that will use specialist growers on a low acreage. The value of these crops is so high we need to protect against pest and failure, so we would have to grow in greenhouses rather than in open fields. It’s not a worry about the pharmaceutical crops getting out, the problem is stopping the food crops getting in.”

Claire Oxborrow, senior food campaigner for Friends of the Earth claims the risks involved in human error are high, but appreciates these can be reduced.  She says, “If things are being contained and they do prevent it happening we still wouldn’t say we were in favour of them, but we would be less opposed. There is always going to be human error and where this involves food crops this is unacceptable. However, if you are talking about tobacco and you are going to grow them in containment then it is going to be further down the risk scale for us.”

The choice of disease targets is also an area which is ripe for controversy. It has been shown costs of drug production can be dramatically reduced, but diabetes and cancer are diseases of Europe and not of the third world. Ma notes that encephalitis is an important disease but as it is not present in the UK there is little research surrounding it. “You have to be careful with your targets. We have always done diseases which affect the developing world like HIV and tuberculosis, but those are pretty important in the UK and Europe as well.”  

Staunch opposition may still be the case from some areas of society but in these stretched times, cheap pharmaceuticals should be welcomed. As other strains of biologically engineered plants, currently being developed, start to enter clinical trials we will be able to see their possible impact and the effect this may have on any public opposition.

(NB this is the box out from the copy)

Improving Nature

Plants have been used since the dawn of civilisation to create medicines, so the ideas behind growing our own drugs isn’t anything new. One of the most notable modern plant derived drugs is Tamoxifen, a drug derived from the Pacific Yew which is used to treat breast cancer and increasingly to prevent it in high risk women as well.

Extraction of taxol which is used to produce Tamoxifen from the plant is often expensive and time consuming as it exists in such low quantities. In the Pacific Yew, taxol is only produced in the bark of the tree and the tree grows extremely slowly. There is also the added problem of the numerous similar compounds which are present and need to be separated from the taxol: a long and expensive process.

Bioengineering of taxol is a possibility, but is hindered by the complicated genetic pathway which controls the production of taxol. There are fifteen genes which control this pathway and have so far been successfully transformed into yeast, but there is still a long way to go.

Previously genetically modified crops have failed to produce the substances they were engineered to provide, because the host plant they were being grown in was too unlike the original organism. The hunt is on to find a fast growing tree which can be engineered to produce taxol in its bark.

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Flu epidemic may be hit by recession

Posted by hannahflynn on April 27, 2009

Tamiflu during 2005 bird flu outbreak

Tamiflu during 2005 bird flu outbreak


The recent emergence of ‘swine flu’ in Mexico should come as no shock, the WHO has been considering a global flu pandemic a matter of when not if, since the emergence of bird-flu in 1997, but we should start to question how prepared we are for the potential consequences of this.

 As influenza pandemics are hard to predict, governments can only prepare for them through the stockpiling of flu drugs (like Tamiflu) and vaccines. This is expensive business.

Dr Merion Evans, an epidemiologist from Cardiff University, is concerned preparation may take a back seat during the recession.

“The government might be less ready to put a lot of money into stockpiling medicines when it’s unclear how beneficial they are.”

 A vaccine cannot be produced until it’s known what strain is causing a flu pandemic. We currently know that H1N1 is responsible for the epidemic in Mexico, but until a few days ago we did not know if it would be H5N1, the strain currently known as ‘bird-flu’. Therefore pharmaceutical plants must always be ready to go at any time.

“That’s a lot of investment into faculties for producing large amounts of vaccine in a short period of time. That may be a victim of the credit crunch,” Evans warns.

We are overdue for a flu pandemic and increased globalisation could have a disastrous effect, as the virus is able to spread faster.

 Flu pandemics can also surprise us as it’s not always older people who are the most susceptible. “The 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic was more serious in young people, this is as older people have been exposed to more strains of flu and are resistant to them, but younger generations do not have this advantage.”

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Scientific Integrity Memorandum

Posted by hannahflynn on March 11, 2009

President Barack Obama signed a Scientific Integrity Memorandum on the same day he overturned US policy blocking human embryological stem cell research. You can read the official text here at Seed Magazine.

Otherwise, check out my latest experiment with Wordle.com:

Wordle: Scientific Integrity Memorandum

And the text of remarks of President Barack Obama. You can read the official text on Seed Magazine too:

Wordle: Text of remarks of Barack Obama

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