Thursday, June 29, 2006

Tips for Successful Book Reviewing

When I launched Critical Mass, one of my fellow bloggers asked what topics or questions people wanted see us address on the site. In response to people's responses -- and the steady stream of emails the NBCC gets asking for tips on becoming a professional book critic -- Elaine Vitone and I just put together and posted a document called, "Tips for Successful Book Reviewing: Strategies for Breaking in and Staying in." It covers a range of topics: getting started as a critic, building a reviewing portfolio, going national, keeping editors happy, ethics, and more.

I posted it on Critical Mass but thought I'd post it here as well, since many readers of this blog are writers who might be interested in this sort of thing. The document is a work-in-progress: I'd love to hear thoughts, including other people's tips, and and additional questions/issues we haven't addressed but should. So please, post them here in the comments section, or on the Critical Mass post about it.

And stay tuned for more similar projects: We're now doing a series of Q&As with professional critics and review editors, where we'll tackle questions like, how does a critic pick which book to review, what's with the shrinking review sections, and more. In the meantime, check out this first installment, let us know what you think, and have a great long weekend!


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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Big News on the Tissue Research Front: A Congressional Investigation Into Researchers Profiting Off Tissues Without Consent

Finally, Congress weighs in on the lax regulation of human tissue research, tissue ownership, and the practice of scientists profiting off tissues donated exclusively for research -- something I reported on at length in my recent New York Times Magazine story, Taking The Least of You (which I've been posting regular updates on here and here and here).

A Congressional report was released yesterday detailing an investigation they launched into NIH's practices after they found out that a scientist at NIH had been providing tissue samples (obtained with federal tax-dollars) to a pharmaceutical company and pocketing large profits in return:
"A senior government scientist pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars as a drug company consultant in exchange for human tissue samples that cost the federal government millions to acquire, congressional investigators said yesterday ... the National Institutes of Health's Dr. Trey Sunderland ... chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute for Mental Health, sent Pfizer 3,200 tubes of spinal fluid and 388 tubes of plasma collected for Alzheimer's research.

The government spent $6.4 million to obtain the 3,500 samples that showed how Alzheimer's disease progressed in 538 subjects. Pfizer paid Sunderland $285,000 in consulting fees related to the samples, investigators said. In total, Pfizer paid him more than $600,000 from 1998 to 2004 for outside consulting and speaking fees."

This is nothing new -- there's a long history of scientists doing this sort of thing. As a Pfizer representative said, ``The payments over a six-year period were reasonable and customary for an expert of Dr. Sunderland's stature, and reflect the fair-market value of his consulting services." Perhaps, but it doesn't make it right.

The problem is that common practices outpaced regulation a long long time ago. Because they were established long before tissues became the huge commodity they are today, the regulations currently governing tissue research are minimal and don't address big ethical issues. As a result, the enormous tissue repositories scientists have built up over the decades aren't set up for regulation: There's no uniformity in the way tissues are collected, stored, consented, or monitored. It's a mess that isn't going to be easy to clean up.
``NIH tells us it has no centralized inventory system that could tell the NIH director how many vials of tissues are in freezers at a particular institute," said Representative Joe Barton, Republican of Texas and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman . ``It would really be a shame if we find out that the National Institutes of Health has more control over its paper clips and trash cans than it has over its human tissue samples."

The committee's senior Democrat, Rep. John D. Dingell, said: "NIH lacks adequate controls for human tissue samples, human subject protection and the scientific conduct of many of its senior employees. Accountability must be restored to NIH's own research programs."

This is absolutely true, but it doesn't only apply to the NIH. This is essentially universal. There is no established system for monitoring the widespread use of tissues throughout science, and there must be. It has to be set up in a way that doesn't inhibit science, but does protect the public against having their tissues and tax dollars used in ways they haven't consented to (including -- but not limited to -- personal profits for reseserchers). This is something scientists and ethicists and policy makers have been arguing about for decades.

The NIH has issued a statement saying, "We agree we need to improve the tracking of tissue samples ... We are in the process of determining the best way of doing that now." I'll be interested to see what they come up with. A while ago, their cancer institute created the Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimens to establish uniformity in the way samples are collect, consented, stored, regulated and distributed. If it's applied to the whole of NIH instead of just the cancer institute, and if it gains any enforcement power, that could help sort this problem out. But at this point, all of their guidelines are voluntary -- researchers don't have to comply with any of them -- and they're not given to all NIH investigators.

Not surprisingly, the researchers at the center of this case aren't talking, and high up officials at NIH have recommended that Sunderland (the main researcher) be fired. Clearly, what he's done is ethically wrong, and a system needs to be put in place so this common practice stops. But this isn't just about Sunderland -- this is about the overall lack of regulation and guidelines in tissues research.

In working on my article and book about this issue, I've talked to countless researchers about the ethics of tissue research. On the whole, I'm absolutely convinced that most researchers want to use tissues ethically, and that they work very hard to follow the existing guidelines. But the guidelines are incomplete, often confusing and sometimes contradictory, so researchers are left to figure this out for themselves. Hopefully this investigation will help solve this problem, though if history tells us anything, it might not.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

The Bogus-ness of DNA Testing for Genealogy Research

At this point, pretty much everyone knows, there are many companies out there promising to unlock the secrets of your ancestry and heredity through DNA analysis (a.k.a. genetealogy). If you send them some DNA from a simple swab of your cheek -- and a good-sized chunk of money -- they'll test your DNA and tell you, among other things, what stock you came from: European, East Asian, African, etc.

Several years ago, when these companies first started surfacing, I looked at some of their claims and thought, That sounds sketchy. From what I knew about DNA testing, it seemed like these tests were a scam. So I wrote an article for Popular Science investigating whether this technology, and therefore the companies offering it, were legit. I put together a panel of experts in genealogy and DNA testing, including one of the scientists who first discovered some of the technology many of these companies base their tests on. I had my DNA tested along with the DNA of six of my family members to see if the tests could uncover something you'd never know from looking at me: My grandfather's great great grandmother was black. The companies offering the tests assured me, if that were true, their tests would find it. So I ran the tests. I had my panel of experts investigate the results, then wrote the story, explaining the science of these tests, what they did and didn't find in my family tree, and what the experts say about the legitimacy of it all.

Their conclusion and mine: These tests can be fun, and they have some definite use in medical research, but they simply can't tell you anything definitive about your heredity unless you're testing your DNA and comparing it to someone else's to find out if you're related. These tests most certainly can't tell you what you're not -- as in, you're not African-American.

But the general public doesn't know this, and no one seems to be telling them. More and more of these companies are popping up, the popularity of these tests has soared, and every month or so, a journalist (like this guy today) writes yet another story about how people are using this technology to unlock family secrets and "debunk family tales," even though it simply doesn't work that way. The upshot of so many of these stories is that people are being confused or traumatized by results from these tests. People with dark skin who came from black families and identified themselves as African-American are suddenly being told that they aren't African-American at all. People have sought psychotherapy over these results and questioned their families. But this is all based on a science that can't actually say you're not African American, (and most certainly can't say you're not Caucasian and therefore should qualify for minority scholarships and affirmative action).

There have been a few good stories about the realities of DNA testing for genealogy research, but unfortunately, the ones people see (and hold on to) are the ones that tell them what they want to hear. It's maddening.

Don't get me wrong, I'm completely in favor of DNA tests showing that deep down, we're all the same -- that black, white or tan, we're all a mish-mash of genes and race is a "social construct," not a genetic one. What I'm not in favor of is this: Companies using that fact -- along with the public's undying curiosity about ancestry -- to make promises they can't keep (like, we'll help you find long-lost relatives), while turning a good-sized profit off delivering results that cause mass confusion. And journalists helping them do it.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Alien Found (then lost) Inside of a Duck

I've always had a thing for animal x-rays. I had a huge collection from my days as a veterinary technician: An x-ray of a dog who swallowed a dozen fish hooks; another who'd swallowed pounds of stones; an entire Burmese python; a cat that swallowed a snake whole -- it curled up in the cat's stomach so it looked like the cat was actually pregnant with a snake. But like a moron, I lent my beloved x-ray collection to an artist for a project, then she ran off with them (the evil artist: Her name was Linda Sasso -- if you run into her, tell her I want my x-rays back).

All of this is to say, I was quite pleased to hear that a group in California recently x-rayed a duck and found nothing less than the head of an alien in the duck's stomach. The San Francisco Chronicle covered the finding well:

"As if crop circles weren't proof enough that extraterrestrials are among us, an alien has now been found in the stomach of a duck. That, at least, is the conclusion reached by workers at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia (Solano County) when they viewed an X-ray image they took of a sick mallard. Right there, in the duck's ventriculus, or gizzard, is the shocking image of a grimacing, bald-headed being. How it got there, nobody knows, but when an autopsy was performed after the bird died of unrelated causes, the alien had mysteriously disappeared."
Here, in case you missed it in the big x-ray, is a close-up of said alien. Fortunately, it doen't look particularly mean. The executive director of the bird rescue center said, "We're a 35-year-old organization, and we've seen a lot of things -- bullets, fish hooks -- but this is the first time anything like this has shown up. I don't know my aliens well, but it looks like one of those with the big eyes and the long fingers."

I've seen this sort of things many times ... in my x-ray collection, I actually had several images of aliens inside of animals. Like this duck, in the end, they're not really aliens -- it's food mixed with air (artistic indigestion, that's what I always called it). But you've gotta love the images.

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