Technobabble 101

Technobabble 101So, I’ve been doing a course on Academic Writing with work.  I’ve found it really interesting, but it has got me thinking about one of the big, BIG problems that we scientists have in trying to explain what we actually do to people – the way that scientific findings are published.

Writing is one of the most important parts of a scientist’s job.  In research science the culture is one of “Publish or Perish”.  Basically, we need to write grants to fund the research we do. We then have to write regular reports to the funders, to justify the money spent.  Then, to show that we have produced results that will have an “Impact” in the field, we have to publish research articles.   And the success of these published articles will be used to assess the worth of the work, and so determine the credibility of further funding applications.  That’s a lot of writing!

But there is a problem – at least as far as the general public is concerned.  Most of this writing is unreadable.  Go on, try it:  go onto Google and search for “Google Scholar”.  This is the “Academic” version of Google – anything you search for will only pull up the results published in academic books & journals.  Now, on Google Scholar, type in “Cancer Research”.  You will get a huge list of results.  So far, so Google.  But all of these results are scientific books and articles.  So, now click on a couple of links and try and read what comes up.  If you can manage to read more than a couple of sentences without wanting to stab yourself in the face, then I doff my hat to you!  (Doffs hat).

It’s appalling.  Honestly.  I just did it myself, and the second link is to a paper entitled, “Human Gastric Carcinogenesis: A Multistep and Multifactorial Process—First American Cancer Society Award Lecture on Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention”.  Catchy!  And here is the first sentence: “Evidence from pathology and epidemiology studies has been provided for a human model of gastric carcinogenesis with the following sequential stages: chronic gastritis; atrophy; intestinal metaplasia; and dysplasia”.

Still awake?  No?  HOI, YOU!  WAKE UP!

…And in case you think I’m just being sniffy about this particular paper, honestly, I’m not.  EVERY paper is like this.  And I’m just as bad myself.  Here is the title of MY most recent paper: “Inhibition of the BER Factor APE1 Disrupts Repair of Double-Strand DNA Damage in Cells Treated with Low Dose-Rate, but Not High Dose-Rate X-Radiation”.  Super-catchy!  And here is my first sentence, god help me: “Radiotherapy is utilised in the treatment of many cancers, but its efficacy is limited by normal tissue toxicity and new radiotherapy techniques are thus urgently sought”.

Just rrrrrrolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Why do we do this?  Why do we continue to put out these boring, long-winded, impenetrable papers?  Even as a scientist, they’re bloody hard to read.  And, believe me, writing the sodding things is no picnic.  Is it any wonder that the general public don’t really know what we do?  How can they, when the way we try to talk about our work is as boring as this?  Seriously, why do we do it?

The reason for is both simple, yet surprisingly hard to pin down.  When we are writing up our results, there are a set of unwritten “rules” which we all follow. In the biomedical sciences, research articles follow a (relatively) fixed format:

Abstract:  A short summary of the contents of the paper.

Introduction:  This section explains the background and sets out the research questions the author is trying to answer.

Materials & Methods:  This section gives details of the experiments that were carried out.

Results:  Self-explanatory, really.  This describes the outcome of the experiments and generally consist of a mixture of written text, graphs and tables.

Discussion:  This is where the author discusses the results of their experiments and assesses whether the results confirm their original hypotheses or not.

Conclusions:  A final, short (one to two sentences) summary of the findings of the paper.

References:  Whenever you make a claim, you need to back it up with evidence.  Therefore, this section is a list of the previous research sources quoted in the article.


Whenever you are doing this, the writing style has to be dry and impersonal.  A scientist is expected to be objective, so the author will attempt to remove his or her personal opinions entirely.  So, in your typical scientific paper, the author will present a hypothesis.  The author then describes the experiments which they carried out to test the hypothesis and then discusses their findings.  But, because of the need for Objectivity, even when they are describing their own results, the author is expected to use an impersonal style and the use of personal pronouns (“I”, “my” etc.) is frowned upon.  Although, as scientific articles often have more than one author, the use of “we” and “our” is acceptable, as it suggests a consensual approach, rather than personal opinion.

Also, the language used in scientific research papers can be difficult for “outsiders” to follow.  We are often accused of an over-use of technical terms and acronyms – the Technobabble of the title – and with some justification.  You will often see acronyms in papers.  This is used as a space-saving device, or to reduce word count.  But, also, the full name can be incredibly long and is actually harder to read and understand than the acronym which replaces it.  The most obvious example is the use of DNA rather than Deoxyribo-Nucleic Acid, but this is certainly not the only instance.  One example from my own research would be my investigations into multi-drug combinations – it is far easier to talk about testing combinations of [131I]MIBG and PARP-1/Topo-1 inhibitors, than to talk about testing combinations of 131-Iodine-radiolabelled Meta Iodo-Benzyl Guanadine and Poly(Adenosine-di-phosphate) Ribose Polymerase-1 inhibitors / Topoisomerase-1 inhibitors.  And if you managed to stay awake to the end of THAT sentence, then well done!

But, who is it who is imposing these “rules” on scientific writers?  Often, we are doing it to ourselves.  During the early part of our careers (i.e. undergraduate studies), every student is taught that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way to present essays and lab reports.  This is continued through our postgraduate work, so that by the time a student is writing their PhD thesis, it is expected that he/she will use the “correct” style.

This continues as our careers progress.  I do it myself.  I would never even think of using a personal or informal style when writing a scientific paper.  If I did, the editors of the journal I send it to would take one look and chuck it in the bin.  Also, our work depends on Peer Review, where other, independent scientists look at a paper to make sure it is of the right standard.  I’ve been a Reviewer myself, and I would be extremely surprised to see personal opinions or informal language in a paper I was asked to review.  It would seem, somehow, “unprofessional”.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that the use of this dry, impersonal style is self-perpetuating: each scientist is taught the “rules”, therefore unconsciously expects to see them adhered to in the written work of other scientists and students, who in turn learn and adhere to the “rules” and therefore unconsciously expect to see them…….and so it goes on.  And on.  And on.

And the general public learn nothing….

McCluskey, A.G., & Boyd, M. (2015). Inhibition of the BER Factor APE1 Disrupts Repair of Double-Strand DNA Damage in Cells Treated with Low Dose-Rate, but Not High Dose-Rate XRadiation Journal of Nuclear Medicine & Radiation Therapy, 06 (06) DOI: 10.4172/2155-9619.1000269

AG McCluskey (2016). Technobabble 101 Zongo’s Cancer Diaries

A Weighty Problem……

Weighty problemAmid all of the hoopla that accompanied last week’s press reports about the new Alcohol Consumption Guidelines, something else slipped under the radar.  CRUK released a statement, which didn’t receive quite the same level of media hysteria.  Which is surprising, frankly, because it involved another popular subject.  One which, if it had been released at any other time, would probably have caused a similar Stooshie to the alcohol story.

This one was about obesity.  Now, it has been known for ages that increased body weight is linked to increased risks of serious medical conditions.  Life-threatening ailments, such as Diabetes, Heart disease and Stroke are well known to be caused by obesity.  Lots of work has proven this, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But what is less well known and, worse, less well understood, is the link between obesity and cancer.  It has been known for a while now that there is a correlation between obesity and a wide range of cancers, such as colon, breast, prostate, thyroid, renal, esophageal, gastric pancreatic, gallbladder, and liver cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma.  Yikes!  But how obesity is linked to cancer is less well understood.  There are several theories that could explain it, but there’s not enough evidence to be sure which (if any) is correct, so the jury’s still out.

The first theory involves tissue inflammation.  The presence of high levels of fatty deposits in the organs (known as Adipose Tissue), leads to a low level of chronic inflammation.  Now, obviously, inflammation is entirely normal – it’s caused by your body reacting to something that it doesn’t like and involves the activation of parts of your immune response to try and get rid of it.  And, normally, once the problem has been dealt with, the inflammation goes away.  But, problems can arise if the process doesn’t stop, but just keeps going on and on.  This is because the activation of your immune system involves the release of immune-specific signals – basically growth signals.  And if you’ve read my other blog posts (especially No Bootees), then you will already know what this can mean.  Basically, as cancer is caused by an excess of growth signals, and as chronic inflammation causes the prolonged activation of growth signals……I hope you get the picture.  The correlation between chronic inflammation and cancer is long established – and as obesity causes chronic inflammation, it is not a big leap to join the dots and suggest this as the mechanism that links obesity to cancer.

The next theory involves hormone imbalances that can be caused by obesity.  Overweight people are often found to have high levels of various hormones.  This can be dangerous because, again, hormones can act as growth factors. And, as you may have already guessed, a large number of diseases, such as breast, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers, are known to be linked to unbalanced hormone levels.

For example, in women, the fertility hormone Oestrogen is mainly made in the ovaries.  But, post-menopause, Oestrogen production becomes erratic and it can also start to be made in fatty tissues.  And, due to Oestrogen’s ability to act as a growth factor, this can lead to an increased risk of cancer for overweight, post-menopausal women.

Another hormone under investigation is Insulin.  Now, most folk know about Insulin through its role in the metabolism of fat and carbohydrates, by regulating blood sugar levels.  People with type-I Diabetes are unable to make enough Insulin and their metabolism doesn’t work properly.  So, they are dependant on Insulin injections.  But, also, long-term consumption of fatty and sugary foods can lead to chronic increases in blood sugar levels.  The metabolic systems, controlled by Insulin, eventually break down, leading to the onset of type-II Diabetes.  All of this is fairly well understood.

But the problem is that Insulin also plays a role in many other metabolic and cellular functions, including control of cell growth.  And, as cancer is caused by a lack of control of cell growth….. I hope you can see where I’m going.  Obesity leads to a breakdown of Insulin-driven metabolism, leading to a loss of cell growth control, leading to an increased risk of cancer.

The third main theory involves the way that oxygen is carried around the body through the blood system.  Now, normally, your body is very good at making sure the oxygen you breathe is distributed around your body, so that each organ – and each cell that makes up each organ – gets enough oxygen to survive.  So, your body is full of arteries, veins and capillaries moving oxygen and nutrients around, like a road network.

But, as obesity involves an increase in tissue size, this can lead to the body expanding so much, that some areas end up so far away from the road network that they don’t get access to the nutrients and oxygen that they need.  Now, this can be dangerous for several reasons.  It can lead to cell death, through nutrient and oxygen starvation, so that the affected organs stop working properly.  It can also lead to increased inflammation, as the body tries to fix the problem.  But, in the context of cancer, it can also lead to an activation of survival mechanisms in the affected regions, as the nutrient-starved and oxygen-starved cells try to keep going.  This can be bad, because cancer is not just caused by cells growing when they shouldn’t, it is also caused by cells not dying when they should.

So, any situation which causes cells to keep trying to survive can be dangerous, because if the survival mechanisms start to go wrong, then the cells will stop listening to signals telling them to, “Stop Growing!”, and this can set them on the path to cancer.

So, there are three possible mechanisms that link obesity to increased risks of cancer.  Now, it might not be the case that only one of these is right.  It might be a mixture of all three – especially as both hormone imbalances and low oxygen levels are both associated with increased inflammation.

But, remember, being overweight does not mean that you WILL get cancer.  As I’ve said many times (and I’m sorry to bang on about this for the umpteenth time), but we are talking about Risk Factors, not Causes.

Still, we are at the start of the New Year, when many people start thinking about their health and their weight, and to think about dieting.  So, when thinking about the benefits of a bit of weight loss, it might be good for everyone to consider that, as well as looking better and feeling better, and as well as lowering your chances of well-know health risks like Heart Disease, Stroke and Diabetes, it might also help to remember that you will also lower your risks of developing cancer.

Pérez-Hernández,A.I., Catalán, V., Gómez-Ambrosi, J., AmaiaRodríguez, A., & Frühbeck, G. (2014). Mechanisms Linking Excess Adiposity and Carcinogenesis Promotion Frontiers in Endocrinology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fendo.2014.00065

Bhimjiyani, A., Knuchel-Takano, A., & Hunt, D (2016). Tipping the scales: Why preventing obesity makes economic sense CRUK
AG McCluskey (2016). A Weighty Problem…. Zongo’s Cancer Diaries

Devil in a bottle?

Devil in a bottleHappy New Year, everyone!

I hope you had great time at Xmas, I certainly did.  I may have over-indulged a bit, but hey!  So what?  It’s not as if it’ll do any harm, right?

Sorry, what?  I didn’t quite catch that.  Oh, alcohol consumption can lead to major health risks, you say?  And drinking any amount of alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing a range of cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, oesophageal and breast cancers?

Oh, great.  Thanks for that.  That’s made my bloody day.  Spiffing!

So, what is the truth behind the stories splashed all over the tabloids and cluttering up the airwaves?  Well, the Chief Medical Officer for England and Wales has issued new guidelines, which reduce the maximum limit of alcohol consumption for men from 21 units, to 14 units (ie. the same as the current limit for women).  The CMO has also stated that while there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, the 14 unit limit represents “the level expected to cause an overall lifetime risk of death due to alcohol of approximately 1%”.

Now, the first thing to say is that, as I’ve said before on this blog, what we are talking about here are Risk Factors (see Tough Luck, Stretch!A Meaty Subject).  Drinking alcohol will increase your risk of developing certain medical conditions, cirrhosis of the liver being the most obvious.  Drinking is also linked to obesity, which increases the risks of a whole range of other conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

But all of this is associated with heavy drinking.  The difference with this new advice is that it seems that low to moderate drinking can also increase the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, liver disease and the cancers mentioned earlier.  Also, for the first time, it has been stated that the relative risks are the same for men and women.  Previously, it was believed that it was safer for men to drink more alcohol than women, due to their (on average) larger size and also having a higher percentage of water in their tissues.  However, the new guidelines seem to have dismissed this notion.

So, this is new information…well…some of it is anyway.

The truth is that the link between moderate alcohol consumption and increased risks of cancer is not new, it just hasn’t filtered out to the general public.  But again, I stress, we are talking about Relative Risk, not Absolute Risk, so compared to other, more recognisable things such as tobacco and asbestos, the increased risks of cancer from alcohol, while real, are much lower.

So, the big question is…..Will this change the way that people consume alcohol?  To be frank, probably not.  Even the new guidelines themselves admit that there is “little evidence regarding the impact of any guidelines in changing health behaviours.”  And the bare truth is that, while the shiny new limit, 14 units a week, may indeed produce an overall lifetime risk of death due to alcohol of 1%, how does this compare to other, equally TERRIFYING pusuits?  Well, Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge, has said, “An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health”.

So there we are.  A lot of fuss in the media, but everyone will probably carry on much as before. (Goes off to watch telly….grabs a beer on the way).


Department of Health (2016). Alcohol Guidelines Review – Report from the Guidelines development group to the UK Chief Medical Officers

Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Scotti, L., Jenab, M., Turati, F., Pasquali, E., Pelucchi, C., Bellocco, R., Negri, E., Corrao, G., Rehm, J., Boffetta, P., & La Vecchia, C. (2012). Light alcohol drinking and cancer: a meta-analysis Annals of Oncology, 24 (2), 301-308 DOI: 10.1093/annonc/mds337

AG McCluskey (2016). Devil in a bottle Zongo’s Cancer Diaries