World population 7 billion today (or next April)

UPDATE: 2020-12-16 The world’s human population is as of today 7.8 billion, almost 8 billion.

UPDATE: 2011-10-31 There are officially now 7 billion people on the planet. You can see them all here – This is, of course, just a best guess, and I demand a recount!

The United Nations estimates that the world population will reach 7 billion (that’s 7,000,000,000 even in the UK where the old definition of a billion (as a million squared) was abandoned under US pressure years ago). The UN data is based on best estimates but obviously cannot be 100% accurate. Your neighbour’s newborn hasn’t been registered yet, neither has the death of the old guy down the road, multiply at least once or twice per neighbourhood and I suspect that we could not possibly know the world population to at least  +/- 10 million or so. Setting aside the fact that we don’t have an ongoing world census…

Nevertheless, the “official” data suggest that, at the time of writing, we have just under 10 hours (at 08h00 GMT, 2011-10-31) before we click past the 7 billion mark. The US census suggests we won’t actually reach 7 billion until April 2012, which gives an error margin of 10 million, as I suggested, if there are approximately 70000 more people on the planet each day.

Why is the number relevant? Well, it puts into stark relief the potential impact humanity can have on the world. In 1999, there were “just” 6 billion people. The world population has doubled since the year I was born. (In pseudofact, I was the 3,500,000,000th person alive on the day of my birth). It’s just a number, but it’s a big number and emphasises once again that we can no longer think of the planet in terms of the first, second, and third world. There really is just one world, with limited resources, oceans and atmosphere all interconnected and a single species (that has amounted to almost 100 billion people since our species emerged) that seems to hold the key to the survival of countless others.

Alchemy, estrogen and obesity

This week, The Alchemist learns more about the link between estrogen and obesity, discovers that the colours of autumn leaves are not as degraded as was once thought, and how mineral tests can inform healthcare workers addressing the issue of night blindness. In Finland, we hear, researchers are converting food waste into fuel while a new theory explains Type 1.5 superconductivity. Finally, Chip Cody earns himself this year’s Anachem Award for his outstanding contribution to analytical chemistry.

Read on in The Alchemist Newsletter: Oct 28, 2011.

Four reasons why open pharma might succeed

During the last decade or so (coincident with the development of open access journal PLoS One, as it happens), the paradigm of “open”, as in open innovation, has changed the way R&D is organised and run in countless high-technology firms. However, the open innovation model has to be adapted and modified to fit specific areas. French researchers have now surveyed managers across the UK’s biopharmaceutical sector at the small-medium enterprise (SME) level to identify what needs to be improved to open innovation still further.

Calin Gurau and Frank Lasch of the GSCM-Montpellier Business School, explain that closed innovation is the classical business model, the one in which a company carries out its R&D and market research entirely in secret, allowing no other eyes to see the products heading for patent and locking down any sub-contractors with tyrannical non-disclosure agreements. Open innovation, on the hand, has emerged as markets and technology have changed. The team points out that the biopharmaceutical sector has developed significantly in the last 30 years.

Until the 1970s, innovation was the realm of big pharma, but access by SMEs and academic spin out companies to relatively inexpensive instrumentation and robotic equipment has meant that almost anyone with a small army of PhDs can innovate to some degree. Similarly, as academics turned to wealth creation so many of the brightest individuals in the corporate world jumped ship to create their own start-ups with a similar thought in mind. It was not quite kitchen bioscience, but the post-genomic era gave another boost to SMEs hoping to get on the pharma ladder and nip at the ankles of the multinationals.

Of course, it quickly became apparent, as it did in the era, that SMEs cannot necessarily cover all aspects of R&D to compete with big pharma. Thus emerged the open innovation concept. The bright young things whether emerging fresh from academia or shrugging off the corporate cocoon began to realise that their skills could be better served and make them more money by engaging in collaborations with big pharma to provide complementary resources to finalise the R&D operations and bring high-value products to market.

Gurau and Lasch suggest that there are four reasons why open innovation was not only inevitable but essential to the ongoing success of the industry as a whole:

  1. The complexity of the innovation, necessitating resources that cannot be developed internally by a single organisation
  2. The dynamics of competition forces the organisation to accelerate the innovation process
  3. The risk of innovation, which requires a combination of expertise and flexibility that can be often realised only through the collaboration of various highly specialised firms in an innovation network
  4. The specific innovative conditions that cannot be reproduced in large organisations

The (un)conventional perspective on open innovation in pharma is that it works in a similar way to the open source software movement. This model is already in place. Researchers participate and have the right to use freely the discoveries developed within the group, but also being obliged to make freely available to the group any improvement they make to the initial innovation. The Australian non-profit organisation Cambia is a good example of an open innovator as is Open Notebook Science (albeit with a greater academic focus). The website, initially an initiative of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly about which I wrote in my Catalyst column on back in the early 2000s, represents an example of an open market for innovative solutions.

A third approach to open innovation sees adaptation of the value co-creation concept in which value is exchanged as a partnership between two parties evolves. The exchange process can sometimes determine the gradual development of a relationship that transforms the open exchange process into a stable business relationship, the researchers suggest.

“The issue of open innovation is particularly significant for the SMEs from high-technology sectors. In the biopharmaceutical sector, the length and the complexity of the R&D process, coupled with the low level of resources of small biotech firms, forces these organisations to search outside sources of innovative expertise and technology,” the researchers conclude.

Research Blogging IconCalin Gurau, & Frank Lasch (2011). Open innovation strategies in the UK biopharmaceutical sector Int. J. Entrepreneurial Venturing, 3 (4), 420-434

2011: An inner space odyssey

I am diving into metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) for a SpectroscopyNOW feature on the subject and my contact Omar Farha, who works in the Hupp group at Northwestern University, sent me this super video clip that describes their research into finding safe and inexpensive gas storage materials based on MOFs. Lasts about 5 minutes.

Incidentally, I had a rather crude title for this blog post, but my wife and business partner MOF-balled it, so to speak.

PLoS One clones and ripoffs

When Pat Brown, Harold Varmus and Michael Eisen started the Public Library of Science (PLoS) a decade ago they wanted to make the scientific and medical literature a freely available resource for science. Eisen says that many in the scientific publishing industry simply dismissed them as naive idealists who failed to understand that publishing is a for-profit business. Others derided them as dangerous radicals out to destroy a 350 year old industry.

PLoS and BMC established the standard for open access publishing by adopting the Creative Commons Attribution License, which allows for unrestricted reuse and redistribution subject only to the constraint that the original authors and source be cited.

Ten years later, the Open Access movement is stronger than ever and while the old-model publishers are still going strong, several publishers have offered up what Eisen describes as PLoS clones: The American Society for Microbiology’s mBio, The Genetics Society of America’s G3, BMJ Open, Company of Biologists Biology Open, Nature’s Scientific Reports, The Royal Society’s Open Biology, SAGE Open. If Eisen refers to those OA journals as clones, he’s not quite so generous about the genre as a whole referring to the “direct ripoffs that seek to capitalize on the business model we have established.”

The long-term aim is not to inspire clones and ripoffs though, it’s simply the “goal of making every paper immediately freely available”, he says. As with the evolution of the music industry that has developed over the last decade or so from traditional purchased plastic discs to illicit and illegal downloads and file sharing to the advent of iTunes, Spotify and the reinvention of Napster, the scientific literature is still evolving. 350 years of tradition are not likely to be swept away by an attack of the clones, but the likes of PLoS and BMC, the insistence of funding agencies on OA publication of research they support, preprint servers, and tools like Mendeley and ResearchGate are all morphing the scientific literature into something more open.

Prepare for Science Fair

A cute animation from a student worried about doing his science fair

The creator of the animation, Kevin Temmer, recently graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Land O’ Lakes High School in Florida. His video was created as part of the community outreach component of his Baccalaureate program. To critique it, it’s a bit long and I’d have preferred it to be consistently animated all the way through rather than being split between the start and end as cartoon style and the informational slideshow in the middle, but who am I to judge?

Does time exist or not?

It’s just gone 5:30 on an autumn evening here in sunny England, but where you are it might be later in the day and already dark, or in the opposite hemisphere you may have only just woken up after a good night’s sleep. So, time exists, but for the Earthbound it’s not the same for everyone. Now, imagine you’re sitting on a GPS satellite, what time is it there, given that relativistic effects certainly take place when one object is accelerating relative to another? What time is it on that satellite as observed from terra firma? What time is it on the Moon, or that distant planet orbiting two stars? And, when we talk of once upon a time in a galaxy long, long ago, we really do mean a long time, the light from some distant cosmic objects is yet to reach our telescopes, light from objects that appeared not too long after the Big Bang have just hit the sensors…so does time exist or not?

Your iPhone won’t give you brain cancer…

…nor will your Blackberry, Android handset and presumably not your iPad either.

Despite the hopes and dreams of millions of technophobes and pseudoscientists, the biggest ever study of mobile phone use shows that the devices do not increase the risk of brain tumours. The European study looked at more than a third of a million mobile phone users over an 18-year period, according to the BBC.

Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology, Danish Cancer Society and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France assessed all Danes aged over 30 years born in Denmark after 1925 and subdivided into mobile phone subscribers and non-subscribers who had used the devices since before 1995. Writing in the British Medical Journal, the team describes how there were just 356 cases of the brain cancer, glioma, and 846 cancers of the CNS, which is about the same incidence rate as seen in people who did not use a mobile phone during that period. Even those who used mobiles for more than 13 years, there was no difference in risk, the researchers conclude.

So, will this be the end of the tabloid mobile phone cancer scaremongering? Of course, not! The tabloid media and the conspiracy theorists will claim the study is spurious, there will be another study (undoubtedly much smaller) that will show the opposite and that mobile phones do cause brain tumours. But, as it stands: “These results are the strongest evidence yet that using a mobile phone does not seem to increase the risk of cancers of the brain or central nervous system in adults,” Hazel Nunn, head of evidence and health information at Cancer Research UK, told the BBC.

So, is it time that the World Health Organisation abandoned its application of the precautionary principle and re-classified mobile phones as non-carcinogenic? There are always those people who are over-cautious and there always those who throw caution to the wind. But, like coffee, smoking, alcohol, crossing the road, and living in general, there are risks and precautions to be taken. It is unlikely that anyone will stop doing the things they want to do simply because there is some perceived risk associated with the activity. However, this latest study shows that mobile phone use really does not cause brain cancer. There has been no indication that anyone was seriously worried, as mobile phone use simply goes up and up. Time to stop worrying.

Research Blogging IconFrei, P., Poulsen, A., Johansen, C., Olsen, J., Steding-Jessen, M., & Schuz, J. (2011). Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study BMJ, 343 (oct19 4) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.d6387

That’s niiiice Lord Christopher Monckton

Climate skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton has engaged in serious debate with scientists and even presented at the United Nations. But, who’d have thought he is actually the latest comedy character of Ali G and Borat star Sacha Baron Cohen, cousin of famed Cambridge autism researcher Simon Baron Cohen? His new character has the comedy world abuzz and the true genius that SBC is, he remains in character to the last during interview, even revealing to camera a “valid” British passport showing him to be “The Right Honourable Christopher Walter Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. Comic genius.

Active ingredient in aloe vera products?

The moment I mentioned treating my heartburn with omeprazole, I got a Twitter response from a “holistic” therapy type suggesting that I try a natural alternative in the form of Aloe vera gel. Natural in what sense, I’m not sure, it’s not as if our prehistoric ancestors extracted this plant’s gelatinous leaf sap and bottled it for sale. Moreover, to my mind, aloe vera products seem to be nothing more than a pyramid sales scam similar to that herbal dieting product you see bill-posted around every city. Of course, pyramid marketing is actually illegal, so they rebrand it as network marketing or multilevel marketing and the people who lay down money for product packs do actually sell the things. But, I’ve met people who claim to make thousands every year buying in bulk and selling, but their real is aim seems to be to recruit others to do the selling, that’s where the real money lies. They’re always very intense people, they’re always at boot sales and their bank balances are never quite what they hoped they’d be after all that hard selling.

A new innovative way of marketing is with those awesome mobile QR codes you see everywhere. What is a QR code you might ask? They are created easily with a QR creator and bring the scanner to a predetermined page. This is a good way to market. Many companies are reaching out to QR code companies to help market their products.

Anyway, I gave aloe vera, and its active component, aloin, the once over in the research literature and note with interest that it’s a laxative, a possible abortifactant and a suspect carcinogen. Great. Just what I need for my indigestion. Not.

Aloin certainly has a medical effect it opens chloride channels in the colon and so reduces re-absorption of water from the gut. Hence the laxative effect. But, that’s not something you want to take every day is it, as it will cause abdominal pain, dehydration and potentially malnutrition at high, long-term doses? Lab studies show it can also cause anaemia.

Aloin is an anthraquinone and although it’s been used in herbal medicines for centuries that does not make it safe and natural. The FDA banned it from medicinal products in 2002 because of a lack of safety data, although manufacturers obviously side-step some of the rules by labelling it as a food supplement. And, others remove the active aloin component altogether.

The list of ailments and illnesses that aloe vera can supposedly treat is as long as any other list of uses for almost every other alternative remedy. None of them is backed by particularly rigourous testing. I just know that the anti-pharma brigade will jump on this post as being some kind of PR effort for the industry. It’s not, I’d rather not have the need to take any pharma products nor any herbal remedies, but the obvious benefits and the obvious risks of one compared to the other in this case will not see me switching to the so-called “natural” product.

Interestingly, since the 2002 ban on aloin, manufacturers have commonly removed the active ingredient from their products to avoid prosecution, so if that’s the case what is it in today’s expensive aloe vera gels, creams and tonics, that is the active ingredient? You will have spotted the fatal flaw in the aloe-insistent naturopath’s argument – the active ingredient on which much of the supposedly positive results reported for aloe vera is not there! Herbalists, such as Guido Mase will always point out, of course, that there are other active ingredients. Yes, there are, and as I have pointed out several times about 30-40% of pharma products have a natural origin, but there are thousands of remedies that are plant-derived and wholly ineffective and downright hazardous.