Hard science, soft science or no science at all……

I have been meaning to write for a while, and I don’t know where the time goes, then just as I sit down to do so Theresa May announces an election, and the world gets even madder than it is already.   As the election campaign gets underway I can only feel depressed: the conservative policies are frankly frightening: a hard Brexit will be a killer for British science unless something radical happens to improve the funding system.  Labour is still imploding, and the current leadership policies whilst idealistically laudable are unlikely to attract enough support to stop a conservative landslide.  I am reminded of the horrors of the last time Labour tried this with Michael Foot…….

What I was going to talk about was science: the good, the bad and the ugly.  I have been to a conference in Banff in Canada, came back and had gastric flu, recovered then spent a lot of time training for my up and coming Mallorca cycle trip.  I am trying to improve my climbing speed, although I have cheated a little by buying new wheels for Eddy; which are fabulous!  The issue that prompted me to write came up during a BA flight.  I was bored reading the BA business magazine (for once I got an upgrade to business to Canada, so I guess all those airmiles last year and reaching BA silver does occasionally pay off) and I nearly choaked reading about a Silcon Valley tech company called Vinome.  Last year I learn’t a lot about the excellence, but also the pitfalls of Silicon Valley companies.  It’s full of remarkable, and brilliant, people generating a bewildering array of ideas and I have a huge respect for many of them.  Some are less remarkable though and Vinome is one of them.

To put this is context I have just been to a Keystone meeting (in Banff).  This is one of the the best conference programs in biological sciences and attracts top speakers from around the world.  It lived up to my expectations with some inspiring work being shown, and I returned fizzing with ideas.  On our one afternoon off we had a lot of fun in the beautiful Banff country side with the huskies and a sledge!  I am reminded that this is the one winter sport, as a vet, I am seriously cut out for!!  I was not able to learn to ski as a child so that passed me by (although I have had a go a couple of times and I totally get it, but I am too scared of getting injured and not being able to run/cycle on my return)!

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Compare and contrast then with Vinome.  This is the company that leads with this headline “What if boutique bottles, perfectly matched to you, could be delivered right to your doorstep?  Life Uncorked: Vinome brings you the ultimate personalized wine experience! Harnessing the science of taste, we analyze your DNA to match you to wines you will love, then deliver them right to your doorstep ($65 per bottle); Vino + Genome = Vinome“.   This irritated me on several counts.  Firstly the genetics of taste are poorly understood.  There is a link between a gene and liking red or white wine, but that’s about it, and the studies have relative small numbers of people (4000).  Vinome analysed the genome of 500 wine lovers and performed a survey on their tastes then “bingo”: they have cracked how to work out what wines people like.  Really?!??!??!?!?!  We barely understand how genetics impact on disease so this claim is, at best, unlikely!  Needless to say it is not just me who is skeptical, but  apparently “I hear the skepticism,” Vinome CEO Ronnie Andrews said, “but those people just aren’t wine fans.”  So for those of you who don’t know one of my part time jobs is to help manage a very big wine cellar, but clearly I cannot be a wine fan!  Finally their plan takes all the fun out of wine: the trial and error of tasting, seeing how it matches with food and how it changes with the environment in which you find yourself.  This appears to be poor science (nothing has been published in peer review journals so its hard to argue otherwise with no evidence) which in the current political climate is not something any of us need.  My advice: save your money on signing up and use it to buy some wonderful bottles of wine!

 

Hard science, soft science or no science at all……

Time with the NHS

This week I have, hopefully, reached the end of relatively long eye saga which gives me the perfect opportunity to sing the praises of the NHS, which is currently under massive financial pressure after repeated brutal attacks from the politicians (predominantly the Conservatives).  In 1948 Bevan helped the Attlee Labour government established a free health service (the National Health Service (NHS)) for the people of Britain.  This is paid for by the UK tax system, but what it means is that if you are ill you get treated properly for free.  Almost from the outset different governments have introduced charges for various aspects of the NHS treatment but, when the chips are down, you get treated.  I have, unfortunately, had various health problems during my life and each time I have been put back together by the NHS.  My latest saga started with a serious retinal tear in Oct 2015, followed by a successful repair and a vitrectomy.  This week I had a cataract repair (which is an expected consequence of the vitrectomy).   These images sum up what it was like for me in my right eye pre surgery (image on the right (to be honest it was much worse)) and how it is now (on the left), the lower images show why!

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If I am honest I was terrified prior to surgery: compared to the retinal surgery this was much simpler, but it could still go wrong, I had to have another anaesthetic (the last one was horrible), there is the fear of the pain (hideous last time) and what if I couldn’t see afterwards?  All this was rushing around my brain, particularly the potential risk of blindness in my eye (which is a potential risk) and these fears were what I went through last time after retinal surgery.  On the other hand I might be able to see normally with my new lens for the first time since I was 10.  Pre surgery the arrow drawn by the surgeon marked the spot.  My buddy Edwin passed me in the hospital and insisted on this photo, and its presence either on Facebook or the blog!!!

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The cataract surgery is so far fantastic and, so long as there are no complications, it is nothing short of remarkable.  It is, for me, life transforming and I now want to rush back to California and look at everything again (any excuse of course!!!!).

All of this treatment has been free, with a couple of general anaesthetics, two rounds of surgery with one of the top surgeons in the world and multiple appointments with phenomenally caring staff.  You have to wait a bit, but I have no complaints.  What I see in the NHS, though, are staff who are very thinly stretched yet somehow manage to be kind, caring, skilled and compassionate.  My care has been fantastic despite people having to work under very difficult conditions.

The NHS is chronically underfunded and the biggest recent problems were due to Andrew Lansley and his reforms under Cameron’s government followed by continual under investment by the conservatives.  The Andrew Lansley Rap beautifully sums this up (https://youtu.be/Dl1jPqqTdNo (this is not for those who are offended by swearing)).   I have been stunned by how much more difficult things have become for the NHS in the 9 months I was in the USA.  We have to put in more money and presumably we will have to have some sort of insurance system similar to France or Holland as the Conservatives refuse to contemplate tax increases.  I do often argue with some of my very dear friends who do not understand why I am a socialist (be it champagne or otherwise), but I just don’t understand what is wrong with paying taxes to have a caring compassionate state where health care is free and we have outstanding medical clinicians wanting to work in the NHS.  We are already loosing brilliant clinicians, who have left to work elsewhere in the world: is this really what we want to happen?  This is why I am a socialist and why I am so sad at the current state of our Labour Party.  No one is opposing the Conservatives which can only mean even more problems for the NHS.  Irrespective of your political leanings its important to have a strong opposition to keep the government on its toes. Do we really want a private health system where only the rich get treated and the poor are left to die?  This used to be the reality for the poor and, pre-Obama care, this is how it was for some people in the USA.  Is it really more important to have an extra pound in your pocket (particularly if you have lots of money already), than to pay a bit of extra tax to ensure free health for all?

Time with the NHS

Oranges, Lemons and Loranges

So much has happened in the world politically, and none of it good, such that I lost the will to blog.  What is there to say, as the madness of a “hard Brexit” looms and the Trump presidency bites, that has not already been said by many others far more eloquently than I could say.  I escaped it all last week for a brief holiday walking and cooking in the Alpujarra Mountains of Granada, Southern Spain.  This is not an area of Spain I knew at all (having had many holidays in the Barcelona region as a child, it was my first Spanish vacation since I was 19).  The area has a fascinating history, including a period of occupation by the Moors, and this influenced the religion, architecture and food.  At one time Christians, Jews and Muslims worshiped together in the local church which seems remarkable in the current climate: much of the world appears to have forgotten the ability to be tolerant.  The area is very quiet, exceptionally beautiful and the sun shone in February.  The benefit of winter sun when you are suffering a grey British winter cannot be overstated.  We stayed at the wonderful Las Chimeneas guest house (lovely accommodation, wonderful home Spanish cooking and great hosts (Emma and David); https://laschimeneas.com/index.php?page=home)

Our room is on the left, the view on the right!

The holiday was organised by the fabulous “Manna from Devon” (http://www.mannafromdevon.com/) led by David Jones and his trusted helper Louis.  It also included Sole’s cooking from Las Chimeneas which gave us a real understanding of local food, as well as more general Spanish cuisine.  A highlight for me was tasting through the “Bodegas Barbadillo” range of sherries, wines which are currently much under appreciated and under valued, with their dry Manzanilla (especially the aged version) being fantastic with tapas and many of the dishes here (a new discovery for me in wine and food pairing).  The citrus fruits were out and there was a Lorange tree (oranges and lemons on the same tree; see below).

Plenty of long and reasonably challenging walks kept the weight down, but I did wish I had bought Eddy with me as the cycling here would be fantastic (lots of climbs, good quality roads and little traffic) so I hope to return with my bike this time next year especially as the weather in Cambridge now is snow and ice, so its back to the turbo trainer for me!  It was painful to leave the glorious weather, the almond blossom and the sunsets in Spain for snow.  The holiday also bought together a great bunch of people and we had a ball with lots of banter and laughter.

On my return to the UK I find Wales have lost to England in the rugby (again), research funding has been reorganised in the UK (hopefully the new council will be able to lobby strongly for UK science, as a hard Brexit may well mean a total loss of EU funding (a disaster for British science)) and I miss the sun already.  It also reminds me how much I love being European.  Still Speed reminded me (again) that my traveling is not something he approves of, even though I tried to persuade him that Almeria was well worth a visit….

Oranges, Lemons and Loranges

The British obsession with weather

Its hard to explain to non Brits why we are so obsessed with the weather, but towards the end of last month we went from -7 to +12 in the space of 3 days (19-54 F).  This was a monumental shock to my system after SF, but the frost does allow for pretty pictures even if its terrifying in the car.

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Kings college chapel in the frost takes some beating!

It was brutally cold.  We went to Deal in Kent (close to Dover) which is a lovely, old fashioned, British seaside town and the wind was bitter.

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It made for some spectacular skies though.

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There is, therefore, always something to talk about with the weather!  I was feeling particularly grumpy about the cold, until Karen and Daniel in SF told me it had been raining for 3 weeks, which stopped me moaning immediately.  California badly needs the rain of course.

The Christmas party season is just coming to an end at work (both in Cambridge and in my new secondment in GSK) and, as usual, I have eaten too much already!!  The college party was first.  This is always an amazing evening full of Cambridge tradition and, as expected, it was fun and full of interesting people.  I missed the main GSK party as it was on the same night as my lab Christmas dinner.  This was also a lovely evening, where I was very surprised to see we had more than 25 people: I am not entirely sure how this happened and I feel very lucky to work with such a great group of talented people.

Hayley, Rob and I cycled at the weekend which was fun although we all were aware of the impact the weather has had on our cycling fitness.  Ciara comes over from Genentech this weekend so it will be great to see her- she plans to brave my aluminum road bike (the one I started with in Genentech and that has a tendency to veer to the left).  She asked if we wanted anything bringing over from SF and I said the weather; but perhaps not if its raining!

I guess this will be it now until after Christmas.  I have many hopes for the new year professionally, but my ideal Christmas list would be as follows: Brexit to not be as bad as I think it will be, Trump to not be as scary as I am afraid he will be, and for the horror in Syria to stop.  I think I am being overly ambitious.  To all my friends around the world, I miss you all and I wish I could see you, but in the mean time I hope you have a great Christmas holidays and a happy 2017.

Of course if I was a cat I would be easily pleased at Christmas!!!

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The British obsession with weather

Remember, remember……

The title of the blog comes from an old English rhyme about Guy Fawkes

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

On November the 5th each year we celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes to blow up the houses of parliament with bonfires and fireworks.  Its actually celebrating the survival of King James I from being blown up in 1605.  In true British style we continue to celebrate Guy Fawkes failure!

It has been a week or two for rememberence and contemplation.  My gran finally died and I was glad to be in the UK to say goodbye.  Nov 11 is Armistice day when the many people who died in two world wars are remembered.  These people were conscripted to fight wars to maintain our freedom and I have always been unable to comprehend how the world could end up in such a situation.  Then came the US election result…

In my opinion the US election result has made the world a more dangerous place and for the first time in my life I am afraid that we are actually not far from a world war.  The rise of the far right across Europe and the USA is bewildering.  Having been to Rome, Paris and London in the last 3 weeks the levels of xenophobia are awful and this has changed so much in the last 10 months.  Worse, though, has been our collective lack of appreciation for people who feel so disenfranchised by our politicians that they actually believe the rhetoric.  In Brexit people really seemed to believe the Brexiteers when they said an extra 300 million a week would go to the NHS.  Of course they admitted the very next day they had lied. Britain is now in its worst debt level since the Second World War with the costs of Brexit not likely to help.

Donald Trump’s infamous wall, his attitude towards women and his stance on minorities (ethnic and others) are too shocking to contemplate.  Now his cabinet appointments also fill me with trepidation.  Having lived in San Francisco, which I found to be one of the least prejudiced places I have ever been to, I cant really get to grips with Trump as president or the impact it will have (certainly on California).  Calexit sounds an attractive prospect though especially given its the world’s 5th largest economy: it doesnt actually need the rest of the USA.  One can only hope much of Trump’s rhetoric is lies.  It all makes for a troublesome thanksgiving (a US holiday I have always unfortunately missed).  Happy holidays to all my USA friends and lets hope things work out better than we fear….

Remember, remember……

Roman Holiday

Its been way too long since I have sat down to write.  A month has flown by and since returning from SF I have been to Philadelphia, Rome and Paris.  I have had a birthday (hence the trip to Rome).  I cycled with the bike club in Saffron Walden (not sure its for me) and with Rob and Hayley (way more fun- Hayley is as speedy as ever and Rob climbs hills with a grace I am deeply jealous of!).  I have had a nasty fall from Eddy (slipped on a wet leaf, I think, whilst going around a corner) fortunately nothing is broken either on me or the bike, but I do have some impressive bruises and my confidence is a bit battered.

Philadelphia was the first trip (less than a week after returning from SF) and all about science at the US GSK site.   My jet lag had got about as far as the East Coast of the USA so I was fine there, but completely scrambled when I got back just as I was about to fly to Rome (which at least was holiday).  I have just started my 3 day a week secondment at GSK and I am excited by the prospects of the research we can do.  Genentech taught me so much and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to work with another company.  Translating basic science into drugs is the ultimate aim of our research and this is what I hope to learn about during my collaborations with industry.

I was exhausted by the time we got to Rome, but after a lot of sleep I had a great day with Pippa, Tony and Mike visiting my favorite places topped by the Pantheon (a complete Roman temple converted into a church by one of the popes): it always leaves me speechless.

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What is left of the forum is beautiful and I realise that Rome (my top European city by a long way) and SF have some things in common – the wild areas (not parks, but ruins in Rome and wild mountains in SF) in amongst the city.

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This time we went to a new museum, Centrale Montemartini (in an old power station) where beautiful ancient artefacts (excess material from the other museums) sit among industrial artefacts- it is really fabulous.  We caught up with our really good friends Guido and Giovanna too, so it was a truly lovely trip.

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Paris was work: I dragged poor Mike along whilst I worked, but at least we got to take home lovely food and the meeting was scientifically excellent.  It was Pharmacology based and the speakers were fascinating- I learnt a lot.

I am so happy to be with friends, family and cats at home, but I miss SF and my friends there terribly…..

Roman Holiday

Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodbye till it be next summer

This misquoted Shakespeare quote seemed appropriate as I left my friends, my Noe Valley apartment and San Francisco behind. I rode up Folsom on Monday with my buddy Paul (who it transpired had cycled across the Pyrenees on a Brompton (if you have never seen one follow the link and understand why I was awed by this achievement: https://www.brompton.com/)).  The sunrise was fabulous

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I managed to catch some of my friends at work

And I then had a meeting with Vishva who has invited me back next summer so I stopped feeling miserable at leaving everyone and just enjoyed my last two days!  We left on Tues and at the airport found we were upgraded to business on BA which was more than a bit of a result.  A flat bed on an overnight flight is bliss!

The weather was warm and sunny on landing in the UK and the following day I was helping to host a Neuroinflammation meeting in Cambridge which was a bit of a challenge with jet lag, but the fabulous quality of the talks meant I spent most of the day awake with the odd lapse.  Friday was back to back meetings so the weekend arrived very fast.  Eddy was introduced to my friends at the bike shop to be re-built and serviced, I took the Giant out and sped to the gym frightening Mike by my speediness!  On Sat afternoon and evening we were so privileged to be invited to Tris’ 50th birthday party.  This year has to be the year of parties for me (they have all been fantastic) and this one was incredible: an aerial display of a dog fight between a messerschmitt and a spitfire (I wish I had taken a picture but I was too stunned), incredible food and wine along with amazing magicians and a 70s tribute band that had to be seen to be believed (my pictures of this are not good enough for show which is the problem with having had good wine with dinner!).  The weather was so good we were sitting outside at midnight (when, of course, I am wide awake still on SF time).  This has left little time for unpacking which has been challenging…….

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Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodbye till it be next summer