Professor Mary Collins and how I am messing with her life’s work for cheap, blogging gain

December 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

Last week, to celebrate World Aids Day, I went to a lecture given by Professor Mary Collins. Mary, aside from being my friend, is Professor of Immunology and Dean of Life Sciences at University College London and her lecture was titled, “From pathogen to ally: engineering viruses to treat disease.” I didn’t understand much of it, but here’s what I think Mary and her team are doing.

The HIV virus is very good at making its way through the body to attack the body’s immune system via its T-cells. What Mary is doing is turning this on its head, genetically engineer the HIV virus so that it can carry good stuff into cells where nasty stuff is happening. At the moment, the practical uses for this are limited, although a team in Paris have used a modified HIV virus to treat children with a disease called adrenoleukodystrophy, a severe hereditary condition in which the nerves gradually lose function leading to increased mental and physical disability – it’s the disease featured in the film Lorenzo’s Oil. What Mary and her colleagues hope to do in increase the uses of the HIV virus to improve vaccinations for a range of other diseases from Parkinson’s to influenza.

Tactless nurse shows man with polio that, thanks to vaccines, for everyone else, polio is over.

Now I may have got the science wrong (and you can read Mary in her own words here). This is difficult stuff for the lay person: the words are unfamiliar, the diagrams make only minimal sense and this is before we even contemplate what’s going on here. A virus that has killed 24 million people since 1981, that is still reducing life expectancy for people in countries like Botswana by at least 20 years, is being manipulated to offer other people will all kinds of horrible conditions the hope of a cure. How amazing is that?

Tricky science diagram

At the same time, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book, The Emperor of All Maladies, about the history of cancer, won the Guardian First Book Award. I can’t quite bring myself to read this at the moment, but it does sound good, covering everything from 19th century mastectomies, performed without anaesthetic or penicillin, to the development of chemotherapy from observations of the effects of mustard gas during World War I.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Mukherjee answers the question; can a positive attitude cure cancer?

“No, I think it’s not true. It’s not true. In a spiritual sense, a positive attitude may help you get through chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and what have you. But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer – any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer.”

I like this. I don’t believe that my life is dependent on whether I think good thoughts or not, which is just as well as my thoughts are not always very positive. It’s more comfortable if you can think positively but who can do that every day? I would much rather believe that my fate is in the hands of people like Mary, who work away, year after year, making progress, inch by inch.

Coincidently, on the way to Mary’s lecture, I was listening to a downloaded edition of In Our Time about Miracles. One of the contributors made the point that miracles may well just be phenomenon that we just don’t understand yet. His example: if you have no knowledge of optics, a rainbow would seem like a miracle.

Modern medicine is not a miracle – someone understands it, even if that someone isn’t really me. All I think is how grateful I am that people like Mary and her colleagues and students are wearing their white coats and doing things with test tubes and microscopes and making this stuff happen.

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§ 2 Responses to Professor Mary Collins and how I am messing with her life’s work for cheap, blogging gain

  • Liz says:

    Thank you Anne, your blogs are always so illuminating! You have cleared up two things for me. I wondered how someone came up with the idea of chemotherapy – essentially poison – now I know it was that amazing generation of WW1 soldiers who contributed to something which we almost take for granted now. I was also told by someone (when I was particularly stressed) that I would ‘give myself cancer’ so I’m very pleased to have it confirmed by an expert that my ‘negative mental attitude’ won’t have long term health implications!
    And thanks for translating Mary’s very interesting research into layman’s/woman’s language.
    Liz x

  • abigail gardner says:

    How can I have just sat opposite her and her husband and talked about pasta and a house in France?? Blimey. Keep on keeping busy Anne. lots of love ab

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