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Wednesday, March 26, 2008



Dr. Lester CN Simon

When old country folks think you are force-ripe but they really love you and want to see you come good, they will tell you stories like the one about the young village boy who was apprenticed to an old sorcerer. Like all apprentices, the boy longed for the day when he could do all the things his master did, and more. But his miserly chores were confined to fetching water and cleaning the sorcerer’s workshop. One day, the sorcerer departed and left the boy to do his customary, mundane duties. Seizing the opportunity, the apprentice dressed up like the sorcerer, searched through the magic book and enchanted a broomstick to do all the work for him.

However, as the broomstick fetched the water, cleaned and washed the floor, the water was truly more than floor and the workshop became awash with water. Not knowing the magic words to enchant the broomstick to stop, the boy chopped the broomstick into pieces. But each piece continued to fetch more and more water and do less and less mopping. It was truly a disastrous case of mopping and the pipe running. The tail of the tale sees the sorcerer returning and breaking the magic spell.

In the story, the sorcerer returns, but in real life, there is no “Return of the Jedi”; the sorcerer does not come back. How then do we control the natural inquisitiveness of humans and the potentially disastrous waywardness of all societies? For quite some time now but more so recently, economists have been applying economic principles to matters that at first appear to be outside their realm but which, on closer scrutiny, operate on the same basic principles. In fact, the more you study any discipline whatsoever, the more you are drawn to the concept of one universal common sense, a universal logic, a theory of everything.

If economists can apply basic economic principles to many forms of human behaviour, maybe doctors can do the same using basic principles of medicine in general and of pathology in particular and see how they apply to life not just in vitro or in vivo but “in socio’’, or to use the correct Latin phrase, in congregatio.

A gene refers to a strand of DNA. DNA is the abbreviated name for a complex array of different chemical units. Genes are generally knows as traits that we inherit from our parents. DNA contains regions that are called coding sequences and these determine what the genes produce. DNA also contains non-coding sequences. These non-coding regions act to regulate the genes.

Proteins are the products of genes. Their manufacture requires that the DNA (containing the genes) be transcribed into another chemical strand called messenger RNA, which then translates the genetic code into the manufacturing of proteins. This transcription followed by translation arrangement defines the heart of the genetic hierarchical structure, in which the master chemical, DNA, is conserved in the nucleus whilst its properties are transcribed to messenger RNA which then leaves the nucleus and translates the code through the assembling of amino acids into proteins. Is there a biblical parallel here? Ironically, some viruses, like HIV, are RNA viruses and they have the ability to reverse the transcription process and make DNA from RNA.

Whenever we discuss DNA and genes we must remember en passant that a small portion of DNA resides outside the nucleus in a small but critically important structure called mitochondria, whose job is to provide most of the energy we need. A remarkable fact is that whilst we get our nuclear DNA from both parents, all of us, males and females, get our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers only, not from our fathers. This raises legitimate, non-blasphemous questions, unless there was some post-Adam molecular revolution, about the origin of Adam’s maternal mitochondrial DNA.

The Human Genome Project refers to the international collaborative scientific research effort to determine the sequence of human DNA and identify the structures and functions of all the genes it carries. There is still some unfinished business to attend to but a rough draft of the human genome was finished in 2000 and announced jointly by then President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The details of the last chromosome were published in 2006. Chromosomes refer to 23 pairs of organized structures in the nucleus of cells, containing DNA and proteins.

There are many interesting lessons to be learnt from the structure and function of the human genome, which refers to the entire hereditary information encoded in DNA. We now know that humans have about 30,000 genes instead of the 100,000 we estimated previously. For many years, scientists focused on the products of genes, which are proteins. However, we now know that many genes do not make proteins at all. What then do they do? They regulate.

Proteins are the building blocks of all living cells. Proteins carry out essential cellular functions ranging from the structural integrity of the cell to the very type of cell, the functions of the cell and the timing of the death of the cell. Whilst some genes contain the code for making proteins via messenger RNA, other genes are concerned with the manufacture of another type of RNA, a smaller RNA molecule called microRNA. These small units called microRNA function to either repress the translation of messenger RNA or they actually destroy the messenger RNA as part of their regulatory, inhibitory function. What are the implications of repressing or destroying messenger RNA and what happens if these microRNA regulators go awry?

There are good genes and bad genes. Different types of microRNAs target particular genes. Some genes, called oncogenes, are involved in the formation of cancer and can be seen as bad genes. Other genes, called tumour suppressor genes, are involved in suppressing cancer formation and can be seen as good genes. If a particular microRNA normally inhibits a gene that causes cancer (a bad gene), a reduction in the quantity or function of that type of regulatory, inhibitory microRNA will allow overproduction of the cancer-causing, bad gene. This is equivalent to a reduction in the quantity or function of the police, allowing the criminals to run riot.

Conversely, if the microRNA normally inhibits genes that suppress cancer (a good gene), excess activity of this type of microRNA will greatly inhibit the cancer suppressor gene and lead to cancer because there is little or no suppression from the cancer suppressor gene in the wake of its excessive inhibition from the regulatory microRNA. This is the equivalent of having a regulatory human rights watchdog group overseeing the suppressive actions of front-line, crime fighting police officers. The group functions so exceptionally well in inhibiting the over-zealous front-line police officers, the police complain that their hands are tied. The criminals not only run riot, they laugh all the way to, in and from their own bank.

The discovery of gene silencing through repression and destruction of messenger RNA by the use of regulatory microRNA was so critical in the field of molecular medicine, the discovers, Andrew Fire and Craig Mello were awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine two years ago, a mere eight years after they published their work in 1998. There is an irony in this seemingly new universal logic, this singular common sense, this theory of everything that runs through and links all branches of learning including economics and medicine. The basic principles involved here are as old as the hills. These principles are open knowledge and common fodder for any sorcerer’s apprentice and for any common, street-smart criminal who, as the don of an enslaved, drug-dependent, West Indian community, has been awarded far too many noble prizes.

(References: Robbin’s Basic Pathology by Kumar et al, 2007 &

Thursday, March 20, 2008



Dr. Lester CN Simon

I thought I should write this article to the Daily Observer to let off some steam because it seems I get too angry too quickly and that I may need anger management classes. But I have to say straight up that I think I have the patience of Job. Seriously. When you consider the things I go through in this country on a daily basis I should be vexed every day and every night or maybe I should have been born vexed to prepare me for this ton of wanton vexation.

Since I was little, I learnt to deal with vexation but vexation these days comes from corners and quarters I never expected. The first time in my life I remember getting really upset and having to deal with anger management was when I was little and liked this sweet little girl in my village. I planned out a detailed conversation with this princess, in my mind. I rehearsed the conversation over and over, even looking in the mirror to see her reaction, and my reaction too. Imagine then, when I met the princess and opened the conversation, the well planned conversation, by saying to her that I had a dream about her last night, all the ugly duckling could find to ask me was who told me to dream about her. I didn’t plan for that at all.

But I learnt from that. I learnt that I must always be prepared for the unexpected. But the unexpectedness I am getting these days is beyond all unexpectedness. It’s as if the devil sent some people on earth with my name in their mouths and with explicit instructions to seek me out and render me botheration.

Take St. Mary’s Street, the busiest exit from the city. There are no traffic lights at the top, so if you have to turn right, you have to hope that some sensible person will not block the exit when the traffic light ahead of them is red. The other day, I drove up to the intersection and ever so gently, kindly, and very softly, asked a driver to reverse a little so that I could drive out. The man looked me straight in the eye as if to say I must come out of my vehicle, walk over to his car, put his car in neutral, pull up the hand break, take off his seatbelt, drag him out, throw him to the ground, or gently put him to sit down on the sidewalk and then reverse his car myself. Now, if I were to follow his clear instructions and do that, the police would not understand I was following orders. I had to take a deep breath.

Some say that deep breathing is the solution to anger. Deep breathing means that you do not breathe from the top of your chest like you do when you are panting; neither do you breathe solely from your chest wall by pushing out your chest. They suggest that you breathe from your diaphragm, which is below and attached to your chest wall. When you do that, by pushing your stomach out to breathe in, your chest opens more and your lungs take in as much air as possible. It is difficult to be angry and breathe deeply. But years of getting angry have led me to conclude that anger is rational.

In a recent book, called The Logic of Life, the celebrated economist, Tim Harford writes that although many of our actions and decisions may seem irrational, there is an underlying logic to our choices. There is a method in our madness. Take crime, for example. Most people do not commit crime because of fear of punishment; they calculatedly commit crime because they know they stand a very good chance of not getting caught. Or if they got caught in Antigua and Barbuda, they stand a very good chance of not going to trial or of the case being dismissed.

Criminals are some of the most rational persons on earth. Misfits yes; but diabolically clever and rational. Those who claim that prison and the death penalty work are not really saying that they are deterrents, they are saying that they prevent the imprisoned or the executed from committing crimes. In the case of these penalties being wrongly applied, the consequences are obvious.

In The Logic of Life, Harford uses the principles of economics to tell us why in the face of the risk of HIV infection, a prostitute will occasionally have sex without a condom for a higher fee. As bizarre as this might seem at first, she (or he) is said to be making a similar economic choice as other workers such as policemen or soldiers, who get higher salaries for engaging in legitimate high risk work. This means that although we know that deep breathing will help to avert anger, we will deliberately breathe badly when we huff and puff and blow the house down because we are making a learnt, rational, economic choice. The reward is that we feel good after a good anger and sometimes even while we are in the state of anger too. Some people actually go out of their way to get angry or force others to get them angry so they can feel good afterwards.

We wonder why boys are doing poorly in school and seemingly making poor choices but maybe there is logic at work here. We have always been told that education is to prepare us for the job market (which sounds so much like slavery all over again). Why then would a street-smart boy go to school when he has a job already, even though he is out of work every now and then, like some educated people? And do not tell the delinquent school boy that he is missing out on the "aha" experience, the joy of learning and discovering in school. He has been there and done that already on the streets where you live.

As the message by D. Gisele Isaac on Observer Radio implies, we have to change the way he understand education. This might mean setting up small schools all over the community, starting at home, or incorporating the places where children go, play and skylark to ply the new education. Maybe we need a new type of teacher, a new chalkboard and a new type of textbook. If education is to prepare us for life, why go to school when we already have the life we think we want? The mountain of education must move to Mohammed (as Barach Obama is showing).

The premise of The Logic of Life is that we are rational beings responding to incentives and rewards even when our choices seem bizarre. Take the recent arguments about legalization or decriminalization of marijuana. Whenever these discussions arise, they always end up in smoke because the arguments are not fair and logical. The arguments usually surround two themes, one of which is to compare marijuana to other substances. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the data show that marijuana is just as safe as or even safer than alcohol or tobacco. We cannot them move from that conclusion and add to the reasons for the use of marijuana by saying that it is a natural substance. That is a non sequitur. We might as well smoke “cassi” bush.

The fact that marijuana is natural does not bestow any special advantages to it. Oxygen is natural and yet it can be harmful under some circumstances. Sunlight is essential yet sunrays can cause cancer. Many disasters are natural. The very act of smoking marijuana releases a number of harmful substances that are released from many substances that are burnt. This means that the burning of incense in church or barbecuing chicken and even natural vegetables might be harmful. Indeed, one wonders the effect it would have had on him if Moses had to stand in front of the burning bush every day for excessive lengths of time.

So, if the science shows that marijuana is as safe as or even safer than legal substances, that is the argument for legalization or decriminalization. We should admit to the scientific fact that burning many substances, including marijuana, can be dangerous to health. We can then decide if the risk of smoking it is an acceptable risk and stop trying to confuse the arguments by invoking the naturalness of the marijuana plant. If this argument makes you angry, this is one time to defy the prescription for anger management and do not take a deep breath.