Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

From glowing monkeys to glowing cancer cells

Posted by stevepog on 28 September, 2009

One of our recent evaluations looked at an innovative method for labelling cancer cells (see the story here). In the original paper, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital developed a process to specifically tag cancer cells by using chemically modified antibodies to home in on cancer cells and then cycloaddition to dye the antibody, making the cancer cells glow when viewed through a microscope. Our reviewer saw this is as an amazing techonological advance with potential benefits for early cancer detection.

This reminded me of the buzz earlier this year when  Japanese scientists used marmosets to show how a glowing protein could be passed on to a primate’s offspring through genetic modification. That research created both a misunderstanding of the purpose (one comment I heard was that “scientists are making things glow for fun”) and hysteria over ethical concerns.

Some commentators such as the reliable BBC took an even-handed approach to the monkey research while the UK’s Daily Mail focused as expected on the outrage from a small number of genetic engineering and animal rights activists to fire up their mainly like-minded respondents.

I have no issue with animal rights activists in general, though I question the real need for PETA’s constant nude celebrity ad campaigns, or for people on either side of the genetic modification debate. It’s when a hugely important piece of science gets hijacked by an interest group who have nothing sensible to add that I get frustrated. In my former guise as a journalist, one of the things I hated most was when editors twisted my story to focus on the angst-heavy ranting of a few and ignore the rational views of the majority. It may sell copies but usually science suffers.

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