travel button

Discoveries Recycled

Boz magazine, 65: 32-33, October.

Brian J Ford

We can already melt down old glass and recycle it as new beer-bottles, and recycle potato peelings as fertiliser for next year's genetically-modified petunias. But it gets better. They are now recycling pre-war gossip into brand new scientific theories that take the media by storm.

Current candidate is the notion that those clusters of childhood leukaemia around Sellafield are actually due to an infection, rather than to stray rays getting into father's underpants. Claims along these lines, radiating from Oxford, have managed to invade every newspaper in the land. I have news for you: it is an old idea which some opportunists are recycling in the hope of getting headlines, and thus grants.

Most leukaemias are caused by infections. Every leukaemia in animals that we have ever studied turns out to be due to a virus. There are published accounts of virus-induced leukaemias since long before the viruses were ever observed. The remarkable thing about human leukaemia is that nobody has found a virus, and that is still true.

The objections to the 'infection' theory are as valid now as they were fifty years ago. People transfused with blood from leukaemia patients do not themselves develop leukaemia. In the early years of the twentieth century it was found that leukaemic mothers have healthy children, and no case could be found of a child with the disease whose parents had ever had leukaemia.

It remains a mystery and the similarities between the pattern of the disease and some current computer model does nothing to overcome those crucial considerations.

It hasn't stopped there. Within days, the newspapers were splashing huge headlines that cervical cancer was also caused by an infection, this time by human papilloma virus, HPV. Many of the reporters called this 'HPV Virus' (which would mean 'human papilloma virus-virus' spelt out in full). This virus has been known about for decades, and I wrote about its link to cervical cancer in a book published more than fifteen years ago. To suggest that it alone causes the disease isn't justified. Ninety per cent of women become infected with HPV during their lives, but more than ninety per cent of those who are carriers never develop cervical cancer.

There is now a campaign for a test that would be available on the NHS, but I cannot see what good that would do. We cannot cure the infection, and you would create nation-wide anxiety in tens of millions of women who would not develop cancer anyway. A vaccine against HPV would help eliminate both cervical cancer and genital warts, and that's what the campaigners should be aiming for.

There is a reason behind these hysterical claims, of course, and it's the usual one - infections happen to be highly fashionable. As loyal readers of this page will know by now, we have found bacteria involved with a range of conditions ranging from heart attacks to stomach ulcers. Clearly, there's a lot of grant money in these current fashions, so everyone is now trying to find an infectious cause of everything.

Attention will soon centre on an infectious cause of MS, another age-old idea ripe for a respray. I shall not be at all surprised to find a bacterium put forward as the cause of juvenile delinquency along with a virus for ingrowing toenails.

The trick is to distinguish between a real discovery and the recycling of yesterday's news. The people who award grants are rarely clued up on what has been happening in the broad tapestry of science, and the researchers themselves don't usually bother to look up the history of their pet subject, and seem much keener on pleasing the employer than uncovering the truth.

The most dangerous trend is an infection of the media with scientific gullibility. It is costing the country millions, and is spreading rapidly. If somebody can find a quick cure for that, they'd earn my support any day.

Go to previous article, to the next in the series, or to the 'Boz' Features title index.