‘The Biophotonic Scammer’

saxophoneIn the summer of 2015, I received a message on Facebook from a faint acquaintance whom I got to know over the course of the previous year, having played in a jazz orchestra with the fellow. We exchanged the occasional pleasantry from across the trumpet section during rehearsals, and surely he knew that I studied medicine, though we lost contact with one another at the end of the school year. He had messaged me about a “new business project” with some “very interesting science type stuffs [sic].” We set up a time where he and his mentor could unload a 30-minute presentation on my easily impressionable mind.

We met in early September at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto. Amidst the low chatter of students preparing to return to classes, I sat, while protégé and mentor explained to me the miracle of ageloc technology, patent pending.

Based on Nobel-prize winning technology, the biophotonic pharmanex scanner can measure carotenoid levels in the skin, which I was told, correlates to antioxidant levels in the body. This medical technology, I was told, was used by some highly-regarded doctors here in Toronto were fervent adherents of the photonic scanner along with a pharmacopoeia of ancillary products to be pushed after paying for a scan. This dubious product, which after a scan would spew out spurious data hardly correlating to a client’s health becomes the perfect inroad to sell supplements to ‘improve’ one’s results. After a course of supplements, a client would scan themselves once again to see if their results had changed.

The scanner was one of the many flagship products offered through a company called Nu Skin (which trades on the New York Stock Exchange, I was told), who’s chief quack Joe Chang has been discredited time after time. Another product, called the Galvanic Spa purports to alter the charges in collagen molecules, while their Ageloc Technology, alluded to before, fleetingly grasps at buzzwords like ‘epigenetics’ to for you to ponder at while your pockets are unsuspectingly emptied.

Having finished with the pseudoscience, we moved on to how I could get involved. I vibrated with excitement anticipating what I could only expect to be a phenomenal pitch. I was asked first whether I considered myself a successful person, and then to suggest reasons for what drove me to this success. It was most certainly my personality, of course! Now what if I could drive my success financially? Who would not be interested in that? Other doctors had taken advantage of offering the Nu Skin line of products, and it had benefitted them beyond their greatest expectations. For the low cost of $200 per month, I could lease my very own photonic scanner, and charge people $55 per scan. I could then grow a roster of clients to scan and enlist a team of my own to recruit other people who would scan even more clients. The mentor pulled out a small cardboard pamphlet and pointed at a six-figure number representing my potential earnings. I slowly sketched a pyramid in my notebook.

The pitch had finally concluded, and I was asked if I would like to have my antioxidant levels measured. I knew the machine to be harmless, but I declined, told them I would not likely be in touch, and walked out. On my way to the subway I began to ponder this curious encounter. Before the meeting I thought about how lucky I was to have an opportunity like this fall right before me – the chance to write an exposé on this most absurdflim flam. Was it really such a rare occasion as I had previously suspected? The reality is that pseudoscience is on the rise. Today, with the great advances we have made in medical sciences, with our armamentarium of treatments for diseases which were once deadly, doctors and scientists are losing the public battle to quacks of the highest order. The concern over this movement cannot be understated. It is clear however, that our greatest asset is a healthy balance of ridicule and education, and we must fight back.

Jason Gencher

University of Toronto, Faculty of Medicine

Class of 2018

@jasongencher

Trumpet Plastic Surgery

tiger trumpetThe world of instrument making is a peculiar blend of tradition and innovation. Once a good design is found, it’s rare for major modifications to occur. The big names we have heard of, Stradivarius violins (or as Homer Simpson says, “Strada-who-vious?”), or Steinway grands, are physically quite similar to their ancestors – a quality openly sought by musicians who buy these makes. More often, the innovation occurs from within the constraints of the traditional form of the instrument. We’ve switched out the cat gut for more resilient plastics (though you can still find the purist who swears by the older string type), and moved away from wooden piano frames, which has resulted in much fewer pianos spontaneously collapsing, releasing their strings, bound so tightly they could cleanly remove a finger. It’s therefore rare to come across a trumpet that’s almost completely made of plastic.

The “tiger trumpet”, a plastic trumpet that comes in a variety of vibrant colours, is the latest in a trend of professional quality plastic instruments. Likely inspired by the “p-bone”, a plastic trombone, and the first (and arguably, simplest) of the brass instruments to depart from its metallurgical heritage, the tiger trumpet is the answer to the trumpeter with a penchant for ‘toys’, which if you know any trumpeters, is all of us. At the highly affordable price of $295, I was able to get my hands on a beautiful blue and yellow model and examine it.

The horn itself is almost entirely made of plastic. It seems like a cop out to begin by saying that plastic has its limitations, as the horn is truly quite impressive. However, the basis of function of the valves still requires a small amount of metal, and indeed, with exception to a thin layer of aluminum which coat the valves, and supply the mechanical energy in the springs, the tiger trumpet is all ABS plastic.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – for the more seasoned chemists, or the well-informed consumer, this plastic may ring a bell. You’ve probably come across it in the form of the beloved (and sometimes painful) children’s toy Lego, but it’s used in a variety of other applications. The plastic is rigid through a large range of temperatures, and when molten can be coloured with a variety of dyes. The plastic does have a drawback, and this is best told by the tale of the world’s largest auto recall of which several million cars manufactured by GM were subject. As it would turn out, ABS is prone to photo oxidation, and the mechanism of the seat belts in several GM SUVs made roughly over a 10 year period contained this plastic, which degraded, and was the cause os several hundred car accidents. Beyond the inherent wastefulness in the manufacture of most plastics, which use impressive amounts of petroleum products for their synthesis, photo oxidation, and solvency in acetone (keep that nail polish remover away from your trumpet) are the principal causes for concern with an ABS trumpet.

I had the chance to play the horn too. I expected the trumpet to be lighter than brass, but still wasn’t prepared for the reality of just how light it was, weighing in at just around one pound. From the instant I placed it to my lips I sensed a difference. The deathly coldness of a metal mouthpiece was absent, and I jerked my head back only in a Pavlovian reflex from the act of putting the trumpet to my lips. Surprised, and feeling a tad foolish, I drew a breath and breathed a few notes. The ‘edge’ of a brass trumpet wasn’t present, but yet, the sound was still very familiar. With few exceptions, brass players will tell you that your tone is influenced by the metal alloy used to in moulding your horn, the lacquer which coats it, the bore size of the bell, the size of your mouthpiece and other specs. This fastidious attention to detail is sometimes dismissed by the pithy remark “mind over metal,” but is generally accepted as a reasonable set of guidelines in selecting a trumpet. As such, finding the tiger trumpet sound to be so similar to the sound of a brass horn was shocking. As I warmed up on the horn, I tested the upper and lower ranges. Here, the plastic structure revealed some weakness. It seemed like the horn sounded great in the low to mid, but not high range of a trumpet’s traditional breadth. It produced a warm and round sound that is associated with the large bored flugelhorn (German for “horn with wings”). The valve system of the tiger trumpet is impressive, albeit they do generate a fair amount more resistance than I am used to, though the trumpet I usually play on as a make is distinguished for how little resistance it’s valves offer.

When I played the horn, I could perceive the amount of research and development that came with creating a plastic trumpet. Plastics are common enough in amplifiers, and recording technology, that it seems almost surprising that they hadn’t been used in making actual instruments. Though I probably wouldn’t take out my tiger trumpet when I’m playing a show with a jazz orchestra, and I wouldn’t expect an orchestral musician to use a tiger trumpet when playing Rimsky-Korsakov, or Shostakovich, it’s quite possible that the tiger trumpet will become the first successful milestone to a rich tradition in the art of plastic trumpet making. I began by commenting on the balance between tradition and innovation in instrument making. While the tiger trumpet has not changed the traditional design of the trumpet when speaking of the how the pipes are connected, the fact that an instrument which ranks among some of the more complex brass instruments commonly played by musicians can be designed and created from less expensive plastics clears the way for greater accessibility to music and musical education, an innovation the world could use. Without music, life would B flat.

 

Jason Gencher

 

Unfounded Alarm over Copper in Baby Formula

feeding babyJason Gencher, Bachelor of Music

Copper sulphate is an amazing chemical. The brilliant blue crystals find a wide range of uses in the world of agriculture, chemical education, nutrition, and even art. We can thank CuSO4 for the wines we enjoy, as many grapes today are treated with a pesticide known as Bordeaux mixture, composed of copper sulphate and lime. Bordeaux mixture was also instrumental in saving potato crops in early 19th century Europe, preventing a food crisis. Today copper sulphate is often used as an algaecide in residential swimming pools.

Some artists have found unique uses for copper sulphate. In 2008, Roger Hiorns filled a room with 75,000 litres of CuSO4 solution, allowed it to crystalize, drained the room, and thus created a crystal sculpture he called ‘Seizure’. In chemical education, copper sulphate is a common reagent used in many labs to demonstrate basic concepts in chemistry such as substitution, and hydration/dehydration reactions.

Perhaps of greater interest is the use of CuSO4 in the food industry. A controversy erupted recently in ‘health food’ circles about the presence of the chemical in baby formula. As the argument goes, a chemical that is used as a pesticide in agriculture, a reagent in chemistry labs, and admittedly, one that is toxic at high concentrations, should not be found in formula. Alarmists claim that baby formula containing copper sulphate can trigger a spectrum of disorders, from asthma to cancer.

Certainly under some conditions CuSO4 is potentially harmful. But let’s not forget the cornerstone of toxicology laid down by Paracelsus over five hundred years ago: “docit sola venenum facit,” or “only the dose makes the poison.” Basically, this means that there are no safe or dangerous chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to use them. The principleis pointedly exemplified by a contest in which people competed to win a video game console (“hold your wee for a Wii”) by seeing who could drink the most water before urinating. The competition took an unfortunate turn as one of the front-runners passed out and had to be taken to the hospital, where she later died from ‘water intoxication’.

But why is copper sulphate being used in baby formula in the first place? There is certainly no need to colour the formula blue. And there are no grapes or potatoes in formula that need preserving either. The concern can be traced to a report in naturalnews.com., a website known in scientific circles for it scientific illiteracy. CuSO4 is simply a source of dietary copper for infants. Copper is one of the 26 essential minerals required in a human’s diet (indeed, our body cannot function without an appreciable amount of Cu2+ — about 1.4-2.1 mg/kg body weight in a mature adult, which makes for about 184 mg in a 75 kg adult). Along with several other essential minerals included in the formula (such as zinc and iron, both of which can pose a health risk at levels significantly higher than they are present), copper sulphate ensures that the daily nutritional requirements of a growing child are met. Copper sulphate, rather than other compounds is used is used because it is a readily absorbed form of copper. Breast milk also contains some copper, possibly even more than is found in formula, but nobody seems to have an issue with that. Nor should they. At the dose present in formula or in breast milk, copper has benefits and no risks.

There is no question that if copper is consumed in doses greater than the body needs, adverse effects can arise. In the case of copper in infant formula, careful studies have determined acceptable levels that can be present per serving. When a decision to add a nutrient to baby formula  is made, regulators take into account everything from toxicology and expected exposure to speed of elimination. They determine threshold levels where adverse effects may begin and then build in large safety factors. In the case of copper in baby formula, the 60 microgram recommended minimum set by the government of Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) is some thousand times less than the dose that is shown to elicit the smallest adverse effect. This dose is orders of magnitude less than the amount of copper sulphate used as a pesticide. In summary, the alarm raised by naturalnews.com over the presence of copper sulphate in infant formula is totally unfounded and smacks of ignorance of the basic principles of toxicology and physiology.

On the Limits of Scientific Advancement, Part 1

VO2 Test

@jason gencher, Bachelor of Music

The equipment used when testing one’s VO2 Max. NOTE: This is not me.

In my short time writing on diverse topics in science that have interested me, I seem to have gravitated towards the realm of guinea pig-ism. That is, I strongly feel that in order to make a pronouncement an a given topic, I must subject myself to it, to a certain degree. Of course, there are limits to this attitude, and as of yet, I haven’t done anything that could have seriously put my life in danger (but I do look forward to the one day when such an assignment might pass by my desk). Some of the articles I’ve researched have been enjoyable, such as tasting whisky. Others have been banal, like chewing my food thirty-two times before swallowing. There too, exist some experiences that give those who undergo them such an intense rush of adrenaline, a once in a lifetime feeling, something that they’re glad to have been able to write about, but are happy to never subject themselves to again. Covering a war, writing about what it was like to be water boarded – for me, it was running some ten miles with a rectal thermometer.

Perhaps I should elaborate. About a month ago, a friend approached me to inquire if I would be interested in enrolling in a study at a lab he was working in. The study focused on some trivial observation in the field of Thermal Ergonomics which this lab hypothesized was in fact, incorrect. Essentially, it is currently believed that individuals of different fitness levels will heat up at the same rate when exercising. The study aimed to prove that this change in core temperature was dependent, and not independent of ones level of fitness. For this to be properly researched, the lab needed a cohort of subjects to test – which is where I came in

I should mention that participation, much like anything else of this nature must first pass through many preliminary tribulations before the investigator is even allowed to search for subjects. Ethics committees, scientific panels, and funding committees are some of the hurdles that must be overcome before people like myself are recruited. When I was asked, I was always reminded both verbally and in writing that my participation was of my own accord. And as such, I have to say that it made me much more comfortable. Of course, there was always the thought in the back of my head, that I had to try and impress the researchers…

The study itself was conducted in four separate trials. The first step was to come in to the lab and run a VO2 max fitness test. For those who might have heard the term in one of their kinesiology, or physiology classes, you may well know of the theory behind the test. Let me assure you, the theory is of little assistance when you actually step on the treadmill. I was asked to change into work out gear (something I must add I am wholly unaccustomed to). I was fitted with some head gear with a tube that was placed in my mouth for me to breathe through while my nose was clamped closed with a nose pin. Along with this, a heart rate monitor on an elastic belt was placed around my chest. I did at that moment, feel like quite the athlete, as I looked like someone in a Gatorade commercial, but I must assure you that this moment was quite fleeting.

After filling out a small novel of questionnaires, being weighed and measured, to ensure that I was indeed an ideal candidate to undertake these feats, I was on to the warm-up. To warm-up I was asked to run for 12 minutes, where every three minutes the speed would increase. I started at around four miles per hour, increasing to about six after twelve minutes. I was feeling burnt-out by then, but the test had not even begun. When I did collect myself (after pacing the room for several minutes and drinking copious amounts of water), I began the actual VO2 max test. The test works in such a way that the body is forced to work until exhaustion. The goal being that the researcher can measure ones maximal oxygen consumption. I was started on the treadmill at six miles per hour at an incline of zero. Every two minutes the incline would increase by two percent. The odd thing about running at four miles per hour, is that it is slightly like alternating between a canter and gallop. Running at six miles per hour, certainly for a fellow of my size, is a committed run. I did manage to my own surprise to endure several minutes of the test. By the end, it did seem as if I was running up the Appalachian trail. Something I disliked while I was running the test was the constant ‘encouragement’ that I received from the researcher as I exerted myself harder and harder. “Come on, one more, one more”, “You can do it, keep it up”, “Alright, here we go”…if this is what they do in the fitness industry, I think I have become permanently disinterested.

Alas, the test finished, and I readied to head back home. Before I was allowed to depart, I was informed that my level of fitness was such that I could, if I chose, continue to the experimental sessions of the study, where I would become acquainted with the device mentioned at the start of this ordeal. Qualifying for enrolling in the study does not mean that I was ‘fit’ enough to participate, but that I met the inclusion criteria to carry on to the actual experimentation. A good friend of mine who was also recruited into trying out for the study and running a VO2 max test had completed the test and not qualified for the study because he was deemed too well in shape to actually participate. So I did come out of the first session with a better idea of where I stood on the universal scale of fitness (probably somewhere between couch potato and retired mall-walker). Having never actually participated in a scientific study, and as I mentioned before, enamoured with the idea of being a guinea pig, I booked a date for my second of four sessions.

Dr. Brenda Milner: “A Tribute to H.M.”

Brenda Milner

Jason Gencher, Bachelor of Music
@jasongencher

In the fall of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend some McGill homecoming events. Dawning my sports blazer, and McGill ’13 name tag, I slipped imperceptibly through the throngs of alumni, their eyes fixed on the campus they once were belligerent upon (O! Those unsung heroes who made McGill what is it today!). I did catch some interesting lectures, apart from free meals, one of which was given by that unforgettable name in the field of cognitive neuropsychology, Dr. Brenda Milner.

Dr. Milner, in her 96th year and still as vibrant as she was 50 years ago (or what I would assume she was like, 29 years before I was born), gave a presentation on the subject which brought her such fame in her field, that of H.M., or whom we can now reveal as Henry Molaison.

Mr. Molaison suffered from terrible epilepsy for most of his young life, resulting in a radical surgery whereby a Dr. William Scoville removed sections of both his temporal lobes, his hippocampus, and some of the surroundings structures. This surgery was so radical, as Dr. Milner pointed out in her presentation, because it was bilateral. This sort of procedure was very rare, and made many neurosurgeons uncomfortable (including Dr. Penfield, whom Brenda also studied with). In most surgeries of the brain, if the surgeon removes the structure on the left side, the ‘copy’ on the right side will be able to step in and partially restore any lost function. Removing both medial temporal lobes, as in the case of Molaison, would have unknown consequences. The surgery occurred, and H.M. was by-and-large relieved of his constant epilepsy, which had impaired him to such a point that he could not sit through a meal without the possibility of a grand mal seizure. Yet, there were other, more disappointing consequences. He had lost all ability to commit new information to his explicit memory (short term), and suffered from severe anterograde amnesia (ability to create new memories).

While being a disaster for the patient, the outcome of the surgery was a boon for this field of science. As Milner explained, Henry Molaison was from that point on, the most sought after person in neurology. Every doctor wanted a chance to observe him, and study the effects of this sort of disorder in humans. Milner was lucky enough to be invited down to Connecticut and observe H.M. on several occasions.

In her presentation, Dr. Milner describe the finding that she is most well known for, with regards to Mr. Molaison. She explains that before she left to catch the train to see H.M., she took some children’s developmental psychology ‘games’ for her visit with him. One of these was an activity whereby the child had to trace the inside of a simple geometrical object, in this case a star. Easy enough. The twist was that they had to do so by looking at the paper through a mirror, so all your movements effectively had to be the reverse of what you wanted to do. H.M. was able to complete the task, at first with several errors, as many of us would too. Milner would then pack up and return to Montreal. She would come back a few weeks later and try it again. Molaison was not able to recall who Milner was, and always had to be re-explained the task he had to accomplish in the activity. After repeated trials, he was able to complete the activity with little or no errors. This was evidence of learning. Milner had discovered that H.M. was able to learn, despite his obvious handicap of being unable to remember what he learned!

The neurology is of course, much more complicated than I make it seem. If H.M. was asked to remember a number, as Milner anecdotally told us in her lecture, he could only do so by repeating the information to himself, or using a confounding series of steps to arrive at the number he was given. The tracing activity involved acquiring new information in the cerebellum, and perhaps this is why he was able to do this, and not other memory activities. We still stand to learn a lot from Henry Molaison. After his death in 2008, his brain was sectioned and transferred for study to UC San Diego. The results of the analysis are anxiously awaited. And while one may argue that perhaps the most dangerous beast in the animal kingdom is a surgeon without a wait list, or that brain surgeons know only how to do one thing: remove, we should be able to comfort ourselves in knowing that H.M. still lived a humane life, and was always content in his stupor, despite some days looking himself in the mirror and commenting on how he was beginning to “look a bit like my father.”

Fantastic Mr. Fletcher

Horace Fletcher@jasongencher

It may be difficult for some to picture a time where advice given by many of the foremost thinkers in nutrition was as simple as a catch phrase. Admittedly, much of the council our Victorian ancestors received is now easily dismissed. “Guinness is good for you”, the aphorism that revolted Gordon Comstock by its inanity in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying is now a relic of the time of the advertising firm. One of my personal favourites from the era of Victoria and Dickens comes from an American fellow by the name of Horace Fletcher.

Known by his followers as The Great Masticator, Fletcher advocated a peculiar dietary regimen. To put it tersely, “Nature will castigate those who don’t masticate.” And those Fletcherizers, who in their homes, or at restaurants, day and night, chewed each and every piece of their meal thirty-two times before swallowing; every piece of steak, chunk of potato, spoonful of soup, or swig of wine (indeed, he advocated that liquids receive the same treatment) believed that this had a direct and positive effect on their health. Understandably, the man probably saved several people from choking to death, but one must ask, “at what cost?”

If any of you have by chance, unsuspectingly popped a faulty piece of chewing gum into your mouths, perhaps from a batch that had the ingredients mixed in the wrong proportions, you may remember the feeling of revulsion that slowly crept over you, as the once materially sound and robust stick began to lose its integrity and crumble into an abject slurry of grainy material sloshing around, sticking to your teeth, forcing you to void the contents of your mouth in a substantial loogie. This, I can only suspect, must be the feeling that comes over a man when Fletcherizing his meal. Since musing on the subject can only take you so far, I decided to try fletcherizing my meals for a day.

Among the tenets of ‘Fletcherism’, the underlying notion was awareness of what we are consuming, which is certainly admirable. Fletcher preached that we should be aware of what nutrients are contained in the food we ingest, that his method of eating would decrease our appetites, that one should not eat unless they were in the proper mind set, all of which we still lend credit to today. And his diet absolutely did this. As I noticed when I subjected myself to the fletcherization of my meals, struggling not to swallow the bolus of food forming in my mouth, to give my stomach and intestines some work to do, I became full before the supply of food on my plate was exhausted. This phenomenon is exploited par nos amis Français, who on average take more time to consume their meals, despite how rich the food that they eat is. Time flies, when you Fletcherize.

The truth in Fletcher’s claim that we only eat when in the proper mindset also has some validity. If you by chance find yourself in a love triangle between two lovers, struck with a decision to make, and want some ice cream in the process, far be it from me to stop you, but do know that you will likely finish the entire tub – to take a contemporary example of what Fletcher hinted at. While I found I had more time to reflect upon my thoughts while a chomped away at my food (perfecting the art of counting to thirty-two, I might add), this rule had little bearing on my eating habits for the day. Save the gloom, when you consume.

Perhaps one of the tasks for the more committed Fletcherizer, upon which I also omitted the inspection of, as Fletcher called it, was my excreta. Dear Horace pushed the analogy that a healthy human body was akin to a well functioning machine. Our heart is our engine, and food, our fuel. The exhaust I suppose… This ‘digestive ash’, as he called it, was supposed to be without smell in a healthy Fletcherizer. This criteria seems to be somewhat more suspect than some of the other postulates of The Great Masticator’s program, given the high variability of bacterial fauna in the human digestive tract among populations and diets. Yet, I chuckle at the thought of a Victorian gentleman relieving himself and then going in for the sniff, as it were. The exhaust is clean, with the proper cuisine.

And so, I fought diligently through an entire day, chewing every piece of my meal thirty-two times before reluctantly swallowing. My sensitive teeth did eventually vanquish my will to try it out on cold drinks, and perhaps sushi with friends that day was not the most pleasant it could have been. I observed that contrary to what I had believed, the task of  masticating every solid item I ingested caused me to go for larger portions each time, seemingly contradicting the idea that I would be eating less over a longer time and likely amplifying the chance of choking.

Beyond the humour of these stories, there is always a lesson. In this case, we tell ourselves how spurious this program was, and wonder how any sane person could get themselves to experience the worst in food for what they suspected was best of their health. There is no doubt in my mind, that matters have plummeted into greater despair from the time of Mr. Fletcher. Many of the diets, and cleansings we accept as scientific and healthy today are just as ridiculous as Fletcherizing. And we need not cast this off as a matter of hindsight, because even when Fletcher brought forth his program, some hundred years ago, people dismissed it. Today, we are even better armed with the knowledge to make decisions, but we are just as amnesiac about whose credibility to trust. It is not as simple as The Scientist against The Snake Oil Salesman, but it is as simple as examining the evidence, reading through the peer-reviewed literature, and asking questions. So it was in the end with Fletcher, who died from bronchitis at 70, and while some faithful few Fletcherizers still loyally continued on, by and large, his program had already been succeeded by a new, and equally preposterous one.

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