Saturday, October 07, 2006


Fat, Dumb and Dead

You sometimes hear the "argument" from creationists that evolutionary theory has no "practical application," that it has not "contributed" to human well being, and, therefore, is somehow not "real" science. Well, I can't think of a single practical application that the Hubble Space Telescope has right now but the notion that it is not somehow real science would only occur to the most soul-dead bean counter on the planet.

In any event, it is not true, of course. Knowledge, even the most arcane, has a way of turning out to be useful when least expected and general knowledge of how things work keeps us from needlessly running down blind alleys. (And there are always enough stubborn people to run any alleys we might only temporarily think are blind, and the fact that all they need do is come up with reproducible evidence to get a hearing is one of the very good things about science.)

There is a report in Science Daily about a novel compound that confers broad protection against influenza viruses, including deadly avian influenza. It is a peptide that blocks the virus from attaching to and entering the cells of its host, which, in turn, prevents the virus from replicating.

The new drug, known as "entry blocker," is a fragment of a larger human protein whose role in biology is to help things pass through membranes such as those that encapsulate cells.

Although the peptide's precise mechanism for thwarting flu remains to be deciphered, it seems to work by blocking the virus' ability to latch onto a key cell surface molecule that the virus uses to get inside cells. To survive and reproduce, viruses must gain access to cells where they make new infectious particles to infect yet more cells in a cascade of infection.
Of course, any drug that might be made from this peptide is a long way from being ready to be tested in humans but this discovery may prove to be of immense value:

Antiviral drugs are considered to be a critical line of defense in the event of an influenza epidemic or pandemic. Vaccines are the most important defense, but new vaccines must be customized in response to an outbreak of disease and it can take as long as a year to formulate and manufacture vaccine in quantity. Antiviral drugs, it is anticipated, would be used to buy time to produce a vaccine in the event of a flu pandemic.
But don't we already have antiviral drugs? Why, yes we do, but:

"This gives us another tool," says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, a UW-Madison professor of medical microbiology and immunology and the senior author of the new report. "We're quickly losing our antivirals."
Losing them? Has the medical profession as a whole suddenly become incredibly forgetful?

Currently, there are a few effective antiviral medications on the market for influenza, but they are beginning to show signs that they are losing their effectiveness, and scientists and health professionals worry that the flu virus, and especially the H5N1 bird flu virus, will evolve to the point where existing drugs are no longer effective.
Yeah, no practical use at all. If we had managed to stumble across some antiviral drug with a science of biology crippled by not having the organizing framework of evolutionary theory, we would have simply assumed it would always work and sat back without any sense of urgency about finding new drugs.

Then we could put the strange loss of effectiveness of the drug down to the wrath of a God who just wanted hundreds of millions of people to die from the flu.
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