Document:Margulis and MacAllister review Bialy
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17 July 2006
The embroilment of Harvey Bialy and Peter Duesberg in controversy came to our attention when we read George Miklos' glowing review of Bialy's book. Mentally meticulous Miklos, a colleague and a hard-nosed critic (even of our own scientific work) is a focused, profoundly educated cell biologist. We read Bialy with scepticism but with the open-mindedness mandated by the severity of criticism both Bialy's book and Miklos' review provoked. Demand for evidence and criticism are intrinsic to the scientific enterprise.
Bialy's message in his hotly contested book Oncogenes, Aneuploidy, and AIDS: A Scientific Life & Times of Peter H. Duesberg is of crucial importance to everyone with an interest in the science that should underlie the practice of medicine. "Oncogenes" are defined as "cancer-causing genes", "aneuploidy" refers to any anomalous number and arrangement of chromosomes in a nucleated (plant, animal, protist or fungal) cell. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) refers to an illness, a constellation of opportunistic infections and pathologies in a patient with diminished capacity for production of the repertoire of antibodies typical of healthy people. In 1984 a virus now named the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was announced to be the cause of AIDS. Duesberg disagrees. Duesberg's accessible, comprehensive and scientific book, Inventing the AIDS Virus that explains why is more an epiphenomenon of the controversy than its cause. Bialy defends Peter Duesberg.
Duesberg's real sin, as Bialy reports, was his review paper in the most prestigious scientific journal in the United States, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) that questioned the data and interpretations claimed to prove that. Duesberg found a troubling lack of evidence and a number of glaring anomalies in the body of literature.
Duesberg's paper caused such an uproar in the medical research community that it led to rewriting of the rules for submission by members of their own scientific articles for the PNAS. His questions are still valid. Lives are at stake. We find the paucity of evidence published in standard peer-reviewed primary scientific journals that leads to the conclusion that "HIV causes AIDS" appalling. No amount of moralizing censorship, rhetorical tricks, consensus of opinion, pulling rank, obfuscation, ad hominem attacks or blustering newspaper editorials changes this fact. The conflation "HIV/AIDS" may be good marketing but is it science? No. Yet certainly the political and economic implications of the term "HIV/AIDS" are staggering. (See Harper's March 2006 article "Out of Control" by Celia Farber).
Peter Duesberg continues his splendid 35-year research career at the University of California at Berkeley where, since 1986 he has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences and hence, eligible to publish any of his own scientific work. Although his government research funds (like ours, on a far smaller scale) were cut from $350,000 per year to zero, he continues investigations into the cause of cancer with work on aneuploidy.
Harvey Bialy's book may be hard at times for readers with little or no background in this arcane science, but its riveting narrative documents the troubling censorship and punishment of a tenacious scientist seeking answers. Unjustifiably labelled "denialists", "homophobes", "charlatans", or "Nazis", Bialy and Duesberg are foremost excellent scientists who follow David Bohm's adage "Science is the search for truth, whether we like it or not". It strains credulity to ascribe any other motivation to their stance.
"Cancer keeps more people alive than it kills" claimed a colleague who compared the ample federal budget for cancer research to that for "exobiology" i.e., all NASA's life sciences investigation except manned spaceflight. Bialy's "aneuploidy" in the title of his superb account of the state of life science funding refers to Duesberg's turn of attention to the concept that "genes cause cancer". Peculiar genes, touted to be responsive to other genes that reverse their action are called "oncogenes". (As "onco..." refers to tumors, oncology is the study of cancer.) The other genes, to which oncogenes are responsive are called tumor-suppressor genes. Voilá, the onco... gene causes the tumor, add the suppressor gene and the tumor disappears. This sort of facile equivocal language added to the universally agreed upon fact: tumor cells are aneuploid with high frequency, led Duesberg to pursue not prizes, just scientific truths.
Cells, in their nuclei, in the bodies of animals and plants are "diploid". Nearly all of the billions of cells contain two sets of chromosomes. In humans the distinctive staining bodies, the chromosomes (made of protein and DNA) are present in pairs: 23 pairs to a total of 46 where one member of a pair is inherited from the mother and the other member from the father. Diploid here means "normal". When sperm are made in men's testes and eggs are produced in the ovaries of women the number of chromosomes per cell is halved such that the sex cells have only a single set. They are haploid, also normal. Fertilization (23 + 23 = 46) restores the number to the fertile egg that becomes the embryo. Aneuploidy refers to abnormalities, excursions from either haploidy or diploidy: 47 chromosomes, broken small extra chromosomes, etc. Cancer cells are aneuploid. Tumors form in the body at sites of chemical (nicotine, lungs) or mechanical (metal plates) irritation. The cells in those tumors tend to aneuploidy, all different kinds of aneuploidy that become more extreme as the tumor cells proliferate. Duesberg begins with these observations in his recent cancer research and ignores the kind of nonsense that Bialy exposes.
In Bialy's "Hoofbeats on the road to the prize" (chapter 2) Bialy quotes an article by R.A. Weinberg, "The action of oncogenes in the cytoplasm and nucleus" that summarized years of work and cost enormous amounts of money:
This review attempts to synthesize much of the currently available data on these issues. It is written with the belief that much of the information about oncogenes will eventually be understandable in terms of a small number of mechanisms and that the outlines of some of these are gradually becoming apparent. Science 230:770-776 (1985)
And Bialy, who supports Duesberg's contention that there is as little evidence for oncogenes as there is that HIV causes AIDS, comments: "Even for those who have raised equivocal language to new standards, the escape clause in this [Weinberg's] last sentence is truly extraordinary. With promises like these it is not surprising that twenty years later we are still waiting for the first biochemical pathway whose disruption by...a [point or otherwise] mutated oncogene or genes is necessary, let alone sufficient, "for the crud to get its start" (Bialy, p. 47).
As both Bialy and Duesberg emphasize, let us see the research results of those who show that cancer is "caused by an oncogene" and that "AIDS is caused by the rapidly mutating HIV virus". Please point us to the published evidence.
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