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Something rather different today and seasonal to boot. It is the strawberry season and pick your own does seem to result in the accumulation of very large quantities of fruit. I guess it always looks like less in a field. Indeed, there have been a few cries for help on Twitter and elsewhere, as people contemplate a huge pile of strawberries at home, wondering if they can possibly eat them. My late father had three excellent solutions.

In no particular order: Continue Reading »

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As the UK political class is consumed by Brexit and that in the US by the Mueller investigation, things are happening in the world.  Chatting with my brother on the ‘phone this weekend I was amazed to hear that Vancouver has been hit by wildfire smog. So I checked the map. Yes, BC is on fire.

While logging doesn’t help, drought is a major contributor. The coastal ranges of BC where there have been substantial fires are a wet place, a temperate rainforest. These don’t catch fire easily unless it doesn’t rain.

Look south of the border and the entire west is on fire.

It would be wise to act vigorously before it is too late. Brexit here has a major lesson. No country can go it alone and maintain its current level of civilisation and development, we are too interdependent. Alone, you lack many key ingredients that we take for granted, from medicines to electronics, because these are by necessity made (or parts are) somewhere else. The super rich buying up properties in New Zealand as a bolt hole against the catastrophe that is global warming are rich and stupid in equal measure: New Zealand may be ‘safe’ physically, but have they considered where the factories making their medication is? No.

While some politicians in some countries take this seriously, it isn’t where it should be on the agenda – in top spot, with a regular broadcast in the news of CO2 production, as one can get for electricity generation (just one source of greenhouse gases) in the UK for @myGridGB. The reason why this has not happened yet is not one of science communication, but one of corruption and an unwillingness of government to lead.

Silence is not golden


Today the TUC and CBI, who are not usual bedfellows to say the least, came out once again stating what a disaster Brexit will be for workers and business, respectively.

What we could call the government’s ‘risk management’ documents are now in the public domain and they make grim reading.

Meanwhile, much of the UK press continues to harp on about sunny Brexit uplands. There is no political opposition. So-called conservative rebels are all playing politics and vying for position (with the exception of Ken Clarke). Her Majesty’s opposition does the same. Opposition is provided by the TUC, CBI and individuals, which last time I checked is not how a Parliamentary democracy is meant to function.

Interactions in the necessarily limited (in terms of numbers and types of people) Twitter community demonstrate the predicament we are in.

The Grim Leavers, continue to duck all the evidence, though their numbers seem to be reduced and they are largely confined to ad hominem. They go quiet the moment issues of funding the Leave campaign are raised.

Conservative ministers and MPs duck and dive, often block on Twitter. In the few interviews where they are challenged or at a Parliamentary Select Committee their performance is so poor that in any other employment their employer would likely sack them on the spot.

Core Corbyn supporters, and Labour MPs in general, fail to acknowledge the challenge that Brexit will make the Labour manifesto impossible to deliver and go quiet on this question. Waiting for the Conservative Party to destroy itself only works if you have taken a diametrically opposite position. The Labour Party have not.

The Labour party and many of its members also seem not to understand the difference between income and wealth. The latter is not taxed and can only be taxed as part of a large economic bloc. Social progress is impossible without tackling wealth inequality and income tax cannot reduce this.

So we are here:

1. We don’t have any English political leaders in the two largest parties, the other two parties are too small to make a parliamentary impact.

2. In the absence of leadership, I see little political appetite to revoke the Article 50 notification.

3. One interpretation is that May is giving the Brexiteers enough rope to hang themselves, one task they are excelling at, and then will reverse Article 50 notification. This is wishful thinking, her track record on immigration against all the evidence, suggests that immigration is a key driver for her and one reason why as a Remainer, she has become a Brexiter. Immigration is what defines her as a politician, she is after all the architect of the Windrush scandal. So she has no ‘cunning plan’ and will not revoke Article 50.

4. Brexit is likely to happen, because the UK has done nothing about the Irish Border or the rights of EU citizens in the UK. Brexit will be the disaster predicted before the referendum. A second referendum is possible, but would require a parliamentary majority, unlikely given Parliament’s track record on Brexit and the lack of evidence-based thinking on show.

5. Any transition will require the UK to actually put something sensible on the table rather than tabloid rhetoric. With just seven months to go, there is no sign of anything remotely sensible.

6. Hard times are likely post Brexit – on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

7. The assumption that we can post Brexit re-apply for membership successfully is no more than a guess. I can see a scenario where re-joining the EU will require very major concessions on Gibraltar, Schengen and all our other opt outs, including the financial ones. It is also quite possible that we are not let back in at all, because the continued asset stripping of the UK (people and business) effectively exports unemployment from the EU27 to the UK and boosts their employment and economies. An economy heading south is not a very attractive proposition, when you can do trade deals with, say, ASEAN, whose middle classes outnumber the entire UK population by several fold.

 

Cold Calls


Cold calls

Still get these, always remind me of the Fonejacker sketch on ‘internet service providings‘.

 

Today’s was on Life Insurance

Call 1 from 07679 547 3865

Me: “I don’t have life insurance”

Them: “Thank you I will get our main office to call” then hang up

 

Call 2 from 029 2168 0599

Them: Life insurance, blah, blah, blah”

Me “I don’t have life insurance’

Them: hang up.

 

Phone carefully switched off after each call, of course.

 

Had I had more time, I would have gone along and requested insurance for not having a life or something similar.

The most aggressive in my experience are the car crash insurance scam, who kept calling me a while back. Having some spare time at home when they called I decided to admit to having had a number of recent car crashes. Unfortunately, when I mentioned the number, 1000, they decided I was not serious and hung up. Must have got a black mark against my name, as they never called again.

 

Double glazing? Happily for them I live in a house with no windows, seems to work every time.

 

New kitchen? I live in a tent.

 

Problem with my windows computer? I ask about how one can remove viruses effectively from… …glass.

 

One can of course try to block them, but they always come back and it seems to pay to spin them along with something literal/fantastic.

 

On a more serious note, such scams need a real deterrent in law, because there is always one fool. After all, some years ago we received an e-mail from one of the managerial departments in the Univeristy soliciting interest in PhD students funded by the Nigerian Petroleum Board. So far so good. Reading the short description of the funding, research expenses were a miserable $3 million. The fact that such rubbish was forwarded to academic staff angered some colleagues, though my view was don’t get out of bed for less than $100 million.

 

The good news is that Fonejacker style replies will definitely get you blocked for a year or two, and it is quite entertaining.


 

Today was the culmination of Zaid’s PhD journey, when he successfully defended his thesis on the use of gold nanoparticles to probe the mechanism of action of a peptide that inhibits ‘flu virus infectivity. Though he approached his viva with trepidation, his beaming face afterwards told a different story. The usual smattering of corrections, a paper already up on Bioarxiv ready to submit for peer review and another to put up on Bioarxiv, and in a few weeks he will be truly done, with a CV to match.

 

A brace of sulfations


Friday Pat Eyers pushed our two papers on new screens we have developed for sulfotransferases up onto Biorxiv. More about the history of this work later. For now the briefest of summaries.

The heparan sulfate 2-O sulfotransferase paper is here

and the tyrosine sulfotransferase paper is here.

The key messages are:

(1) Mimetics of PAPS, the universal sulfate donor, that inhibit sulfotransferases are present in kinase inhibitor libraries.

(2) We demonstrate selectivity, in that some compounds inhibitor one sulfotransferase better than they do the other.

(3) PAPS mimetics look like providing a rich vein of sulfotransferase inhibitors of varying selectivity, rather like ATP mimetics have done for kinases.

(4) We have two very effective high throughput screens, which means no sulfotransferase is now beyond our reach.

Sulfation has been frustrating due to the lack of chemical tools to selectively inhibit a particular sulfotransferase. With these two papers we can foresee such tools in the not too distant future and with these, we can unpick the role of sulfation in biology, from development, through homeostasis to disease.

Exciting times!


ArrestAD

Our first results-driven scientific meeting was held in La Rochelle, France, on October 6 and 7. In addition to the research teams, we also had our two external advisors. It is important to have outside views on research and their substantial contributions were very much appreciated.

The UPEC group did a fantastic job in organising and structuring the meeting.  There was plenty of formal time for discussion, as well as time for informal discussions around the breaks, meal times and evening. The meeting itself covered the entire range of topics that lie within the ArrestAD programme. Talks included a recap of our objectives and strategy, administrative matters, ethics, and communication plans. The latter have an important ethical angle, as institutional publicity offices often oversell research. In the case of biomedical research, and perhaps very particularly to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, over positive spinning of research results would likely be…

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‘flu and me


While reading and correcting a PhD thesis on ‘flu virus I thought I would check what strains I have encountered.

In February 1978 after playing a match for what was then RC Hermance (now HRRC) on a Sunday. I fell ill on the Tuesday, called home and was picked up by my mother.  Unfortunately, though a very smart person, critical thinking was not part of her education, which stopped at 16, and she dabbled in homeopathy. So I got sicker, spent 4 days at 41°C or above, but happily was then under our local GP (my mum was not daft) and was receiving anti-pyrogenic injections.  That time is a bit hazy, though my mother did say she thought she would lose me, so I must have been pretty ill.  This turns out to be an H1N1 virus, which only affected those under 26 years old. As this article  argues this particular ‘flu virus seems likely to have emerged from a lab (bio warfare) accident in the USSR or from vaccination (infection?) tests with live virus in China or the USSR, since the strain was almost identical to that from 26 years earlier and had not been seen in the wild in the intervening quarter century.

Fast forward to 1999 and I get a call from Tristan Bernard, past teammate at RC Hermance (now Life President, well deserved, a true evangelist for the sport) asking for a bed for him and a mate who were watching the World Cup; Liverpool was on a commute between games. A great evening, stated off in the Vines, and finished with a meal sometime after 2 am. A few days later ‘flu – this was I think brought to the UK by an Australian supporter and was an H3N2 strain virus. Not a major health incident for me though, a few days in bed and I was fine.

So the worst that rugby has done for me is ‘flu, twice, though I do have a wobbly ankle joint too.

As a side issue the murky past of the 1978 H1N1 ‘flu virus highlights the stupidity of allowing the gain of function engineering of pathogens. Regardless of whether the 1977 ‘flu virus did re-emerge from a lab, accidents, by definition, happen and viruses such as ‘flu remain an obvious war tool. I would be far more worried by N. Korean efforts in the molecular biology of viruses than by a few missiles with nuclear warheads. The latter can be stopped in flight, whereas viruses cannot.