Domhnall Iain MacDonald: The Biology of Pain

Pain is arguably one of the most central features of human experience. Many of us routinely experience pain in our lives, from the smallest cut to the most traumatic injury. Chronic pain, too, poses a serious challenge to our public health institutions. Philosophers have even argued that pain is morally bad: John Stuart Mill, for one, famously described happiness as “pleasure and the absence of pain”; the purpose of government, Mill thought, was to maximise the former and minimise the latter. Yet some individuals spend their entire lives feeling absolutely no pain at all and scientists are hoping to discover a breakthrough painkiller through analysing the genetic mutations that make people unable to feel pain.

This week on The Provocateur I talk to Domnhall Iain MacDonald, a PhD student in neuroscience at UCL, to discuss the biology of pain. Among other things, we cover the biological usefulness of pain to humans; whether non-human animals feel pain and the ethics of testing painful sensations on animals; and the latest frontiers in clinical pain research.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Hiyasaki, E. (2017) ‘End Pain Forever: How a Single Gene Could Become a Volume Knob for Human Suffering‘, Wired, 18 April.

Kiesel, L. (2016) ‘All Pain is Not Equal‘, Relief, 28 June.

Sutherland, S. (2016) ‘Pain Research in Animals: Why Do It, and What Can It Tell Us?‘ Relief, 10 January.

____ (2017) ‘Taking Aim at New Pain Drugs‘, Relief, 19 January.

Ross Keller: Fighting the War on Cancer

It is difficult to find someone whose life has not been touched in some way by cancer and indeed ‘the big C’ is probably one of the most well-known public health concerns. Ever since American scientists officially declared war on cancer in the 1970s, millions of lives have been saved through increased awareness, early detection and vast amounts of investment into research and development. But it seems we are no closer to the original target of eradicating cancer by the 2020s. According to the National Cancer Research Institute, the disease continues to kill more than eight million people worldwide every year, with 60 per cent of new cases occurring in the Global South. Overall cancer deaths are expected to increase by 60 per cent by 2030, largely due to an ageing global population. There is some hope however, as researchers around the world are racing to find the Holy Grail of cancer biology: a completely foolproof cure.

This week on The Provocateur I am joined by Ross Keller, a PhD candidate in Biomedical Sciences at Penn State College of Medicine, to discuss the ways in which he and other cancer biologists are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the fight against cancer. We first briefly talk about what cancer is before going on to cover the traditional weapons used to tackle cancer, the ways in which cancer can outwit us and the startling new frontiers in cancer treatment. Ross has also written an excellent blog series covering the War on Cancer: the first part can be read here.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

To donate to Cancer Research UK, click here.

Further Reading:

Journalistic articles:

Begley, S. (2017) ‘Most Cancer Cases Arise from “Bad Luck”‘, Scientific American: STAT, 24 March.

Keller, R. (2015) ‘Why is Tanning Dangerous?’ Lions Talk Science, 13 April.

____ (2016) ‘Immunotherapy: Awakening the Immune System to Fight Cancer’, Lions Talk Science, 13 September.

____ (2017) ‘What is Radon? And How Does It Impact Health?’ Lions Talk Science, 15 February.

Scientific reading (assumes graduate level biology):

Hanahan, D. and R. A. Weinberg (2011) ‘Hallmarks of Cancer: The Next Generation’, Cell 144(5), pp. 646-674.

McGranahan, N. and C. Swanton (2017) ‘Clonal Heterogeneity and Tumor Evolution: Past, Present and the Future’, Cell 168(4), pp. 613-628. 

Robert Williams: Snake Bites as a Global Health Priority

Today, The Provocateur turns its attention to one of the planet’s most neglected global health issues: snake bites. According to the Global Snakebite Initiative, every year around the world 2.7 million people are seriously injured by snakes and 125,000 people are killed. The problem is particularly acute in rural communities in India and sub-Saharan Africa, where a lack of education surrounding snake hazards compounds the issue of chronic underinvestment into anti-venom treatments.

In this episode I talk to Robert Williams, an MSc candidate in Global Health at Brighton & Sussex Medical School, about the global snakebite crisis. We explore his interest in the subject, his fieldwork in Uganda and the implications of taking snake bites seriously as a global health priority. Robert also gives some tips on what to do if you or a friend is bitten by a snake.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Avau, B. et al. (2016) ‘The Treatment of Snake Bites in a First Aid Setting: A Systematic Review‘, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 10(10), e0005079.

Gutierrez, J. M. et al. (2006) ‘Confronting the Neglected Problem of Snake Bite Envenoming: The Need for a Global Partnership‘, PLOS Medicine 3(6), e150.

Harrison, R. A. et al. (2009) ‘Snake Envenoming: A Disease of Poverty’PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 3(12), e569.

Kasturiratne, A. et al. (2008) ‘The Global Burden of Snakebite: A Literature Analysis and Modelling Based on Regional Estimates of Envenoming and Deaths‘, PLOS Medicine 5(11), e218.

Medicins Sans Frontières (2015) ‘Snakebite: How a Public Health Emergency Went Under the Radar‘. Accessed 24 January 2017.

Williams, D. et al. (2010) ‘The Global Snake Bite Initiative: an antidote for snake bite‘, The Lancet 375(9708), pp. 89-91.

Correction: It was stated in the programme that snake bites are a top ten cause of death in the world. The correct statistic is that snake bites kill more people than all other neglected tropical diseases combined.