What next for the HIV derived cure for cancer?

In August of 2011, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial article "Redirecting T Cells", which introduced an interim report from a Phase 1 clinical trial of an Anti-Cancer treatment derived from the HIV virus on 3 patients with refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).

The results were extremely positive, with 2 of the 3 patients having undetectable levels of cancer after a follow up at 6 months. That is, in a very limited sense, they had been cured of Cancer.

As usual with important scientific matters the best place to go for an informed view on the subject is comedy, and xkcd hit the nail on the head with a perfect mixture of optimism and scepticism in this comic.


From a medical genetics point of view, retroviruses like HIV include a viral enzyme called reverse-transcriptase (RT) of which the function is to incorporate the viral nucleic acid into the genome of the host cell, hence not only does the virus make copies of itself using your own cells, any daughter cells of the original also have copies of the viral genome installed and running.
Very cheeky indeed!

The treatment (nice video from UPenn team here) involves infusing back into patients modified versions of their own T-cells, that have been tinkered with by using the HIV RT enzyme to make the T-cells recognise and attack cancerous cells. However crucially, the modified T-cell genome remains persistent in the host and goes on killing cancer cells beyond the death of original infusion. (see xkcd for a succinct review of the risks and side-effects).

Given the theoretical importance of this type of treatment, I think its worth mentioning how the 3 patient trial was funded:
"The researchers did manage to get a grant from the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, a charity founded by Barbara and Edward Netter after their daughter-in-law died of cancer. The money was enough to finance the trials on the first three patients."

Anyway... so during a conversation about cancer and clinical trials a few days ago I was trying to make the case that despite the cost of phase IV trials being bonkers money, and getting more expensive each year, that there is a productive area for relatively small scale charitable funding which if successful can leverage up to big-pharma funding.

However when I tried to reference a couple of the "facts" that I had used in my claim, it turns out that my memory had served me poorly and I needed to revisit my sources.  It becomes clear why my poor memory is an asset if you read on...

(These mis-remembering fuckups suggest I might do well to enlist on some early stage treatment for memory loss ASAP, or pay more attention the first time... whatever ;-)

Quantitative finance stole all the math grads.

"While they are booming, these industries draw in resources at a phenomenal rate. It is only when they crash, after the bust, that we realise the extent of the overinvestment that occurred. "
BIS Annual Report  
If your chosen industry sector relies on research, and your country has a growing financial sector, then you lose your best brains.
"That is to say, a sector with high R+D intensity located in a country whose financial system is growing rapidly grows between 1.9 and 2.9% a year slower than a sector with low R+D intensity located in a country whose financial system is growing slowly."
BIS Annual Report

I've been saying to anyone who will listen, that one of the things that came out of my dalliances with mathematically orientated acedemia, is that I now have an appreciation of quite how much effort goes into knowing stuff. (if nothing else)

Its also pretty clear that society, and possibly genetics, only produces a limited number of people who are willing to devote years of their lives to learning in depth about mathematics.

This leads to the observation that one of the uncounted costs (at least at the societal level) of the recent financial boom and crash, was that the rewards offered in the financial industry attracted many more of the top math students into quantitative finance, to the detriment of the other mathematically orientated fields.

Hence that the Bank of International settlements published their annual report, in which they quantified (you know, in numbers) the actual cost to society of the brain drain to hedge-funds to real science (that stuff that cures cancer) and surprisingly enough, they agree with me.

Ultimatum & Dictator

At a family dinner on Sunday the subject came up of corrupt officials offering tickets to the olympics and everyone being sooo shocked that these naughty foreigners would do such a thing.
But it reminded me of the games that economists (?) devised that can be used as some "objective" test of how participants value fairness, and tolerance for unfairness (i.e. tolerance of corruption) and how this varies between nations, societies and cultures.  

Basically the point of these games is to arrange that random people to play the games in various countries and record the results, the idea being that its simple enough that its meaningful to compare across.

Why developers will rule the world.

I did this post on why sysadmins will just get more powerful, by server and system, until they control the very air that we breathe.

Clearly in response to that actual post Forbes has decided to fight back, on the side of the developers with this article... "The Rise of Developeronomics" and make the case that is in fact the developers who will rule the earth.

Obviously I disagree mightily, but it is a good read none the less for anyone in a particularly technical career path.


the value of being hacked.

I am great believer in the idea that experience is the best teacher, and a shocking experience is the most teaching of them all.

Hence I strongly approve of the behaviour and message recounted in these here posts about the hacking of a ATM machine in a public demonstration, and how the company responded.

The security guy from the ATM company blogs about his companies machine getting "jackpotted" in front of 5000 screaming black-hat conference attendees:

BGR on the matter:

The youtube video of the hacking: