theGIST Issue 12

Spring 2020 | Science in the Spotlight

Spring 2020 | Science in the Spotlight


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Lab-grown meat

Deepfake data

A bad influence

Science in the




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"Science in the spotlight"

Deepfake data in the post-truth era

Chernobyl: What is the cost of lies?

Is CGI too advanced for its own good?

A bad Influence

HKPF, you've got some nerve: Exploring

the long-term effects of tear gas exposure


Kirstin Leslie and

Katrina Wesencraft

Submissions Team:

Ailish McCafferty and

Desislava Arabadzhiyska

Copy­Editing Team:

Deep Bandivadekar

and Vaiva Gikaitė

Cover Design:

Kilian Kleemann




Kirstin Leslie & Katrina Wesencraft




Astrid Lea-Mutch

(Instagram: @biblichor_botanist)

Emma Garcia Melchor

George Bell


Iona Macwhirter-Harley

Maria Clara Liuzzi

(Instagram: @artbyclara.x)




Any image featured in this magazine

without attribution is public domain.


Science in the Spotlight


"What is the cost of lies?"

If, like me, you've watched HBO

miniseries Chernobyl, you may have,

as I did, found yourself freaking out.

I started googling frantically. My

panic increased as the nuclear plant

technicians in the show continued to

say: "it isn't possible". Like the "unsinkable"

Titanic, they were evidently

wrong. I wondered if present-day

nuclear safety experts could be

wrong too. A cold sweat began to

form as I realised that the closest

nuclear power plant to Glasgow is

only 37 miles away, easily close

enough to spell my doom (roughly

eighteen times the distance from

Pripyat to Chernobyl, but certainly

close enough to suffer the effects of

a nuclear fallout — or so my panic

led me to believe).

After stressing irrationally for several

hours, I collected my thoughts.

Considering that fear largely comes

from a lack of understanding, I've

decided to learn all there is to learn

(in a short space of time) about

Chernobyl. Why do we use nuclear

power? What went wrong, and what

is the legacy of Chernobyl — on the

people affected, the surrounding

area, and the surprising tourist trade

that has emerged in the exclusion


Nuclear Energy

We have known about the potential

damage nuclear energy can

cause for longer than we have used

it as a commercial power source. In

August 1945, atomic bombs were

dropped in the cities of Hiroshima

and Nagasaki. In Hiroshima, approximately

60-80,000 people were

killed instantly, though further

deaths from acute symptoms, subsequent

cancers, and illnesses associated

with radiation poisoning led

to over 200,000 deaths by 1950; in

Nagasaki, roughly 140,000 deaths

are estimated [1]. If the bombs had

been detonated closer to the

ground, the death and injury toll

could well have been higher still.

It's had a cultural impact too. The

Japanese language has a word, Hibakusha,

to describe people who

have been affected by the atomic

bombs. All this, six years before

nuclear was ever used as an energy

source and nine years before it was

harnessed for commercial means


And yet, it is an undeniably efficient

source of energy. According to

the US Office of Nuclear Energy, a

single nuclear reactor can produce

energy equivalent to 431 wind turbines

[3]. It's also a steady energy

source, as wind and solar energy are

reliant on weather that might not always

be predictable or consistent.

Despite economic issues around

disposing toxic waste products (depleted

fuel can have uses in new

types of reactors), it is also far

cleaner than burning fossil fuels and

has very low net CO 2



It's also much safer than you

might think. Writing for Physics

World, nuclear engineer Una Davies

pointed out that "nuclear power has

the lowest number of deaths per

kilowatt-hour of electricity generated"

[4]. This seems totally counterintuitive

to the way nuclear power

is represented in the media, and yet,

when you consider the effects of

fossil fuels on air pollution and climate

change, it makes a lot of

sense. Proportionally, there are also

fewer accidents in nuclear powerplants

compared to those for harvesting

other energy sources. In order

to meet EU pledges of the Paris

Agreement, to cut greenhouse gases

by 40% (compared to 1990 levels)

and to achieve a 32.5% increase in

energy efficiency [5], it may be difficult

to rule out nuclear as an option.

What Went Wrong in

Reactor 4?

The show goes some way to explaining

this in the final episode. The

reactors used in Chernobyl were Soviet

RBMK designs. RBMK stands for

'reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty

kanalny', translated by the World

Nuclear Association to mean 'highpower

channel reactor'. During a

safety check to test how long the reactor

could be sustained in the event

of a power outage, a flaw in the

design led to a power surge, and water

(usually used to cool the system)

reacted with the fuel to create intense

pressure [6]. In The Chernobyl

Podcast which accompanies the

series (I strongly recommend listening

if you too have an unquenchable

appetite for all things Chernobyl),

show creator Craig Mazin tells the

presenter how, when researching the

accident, he was struck by the irony

of the explosion occurring during a

safety test. Human error and flawed

Science in the Spotlight

design were essentially responsible.

Surprisingly, the other three reactors

at Chernobyl continued to run

through the 1990s — a testament to

the demand for efficient energy. In

2000 the final reactor at the site

shut down. There are still, at the

time of writing, 10 RBMK reactors

still in operation [7] but greater understanding

of the potential faults

and higher safety standards should

prevent the likelihood of any repeat


Radiation Exposure

Around the 1980s, there was a

lack of understanding about how to

handle the dangers of ionising radiation

among the general public. Propaganda

in the USSR promoted the

promises of the 'friendly atom', and

there was a widely-held belief that

vodka could decontaminate people

from radiation exposure (sorry, but it

can't. Swigging booze on that longhaul

flight won't protect from the radiation

you'll come into contact with

while you're up in the air).

When reactor 4 blew up, the firefighters

called to the scene believed

it was a fire on the roof, and were

not properly informed of the

dangers. Based on a true story, in

the TV adaptation we see a firefighter

picking up graphite from the exploded

core and becoming injured. It

quickly eats through his glove and

causes catastrophic burns to his

hand. Firefighters on the show also

report tasting metal, which really

happens around intense radiation

due to damage to the taste buds.

Radiation sickness starts after receiving

an instantaneous radiation

dose of 750 milliSieverts, and dose

of between 3,000 - 10,000 mSv will

leave you with a 50% chance of survival

[8]. At the time of the meltdown,

ten minutes of exposure to

the Chernobyl nuclear reactor core

would have exposed you to almost

50,000 mSv and certain death [9].

However, we are all exposed to

low levels of radiation all the time —

from eating bananas to using computers.

The average person is exposed

to roughly 2 mSv over the

course of a year, though this varies

widely. If you live in Aberdeen, you'll

be exposed to higher levels of radiation

from the granite buildings

compared to the sandstone tenements

of Glasgow. It may also be

higher for those who smoke, people

undergoing cancer chemotherapy, or

those who are frequent flyers —

you'd be exposed to around 0.04

mSv on a flight from New York to LA.

However, acute radiation syndrome

(ARS), as we see in the TV

show, usually occurs in four stages

[10]. Initially, it presents similarly to

burns; reddening and swelling of the

skin, along with nausea, vomiting,

diarrhoea, and headaches. This

stage can last anywhere between

minutes and days, depending on the

level of exposure. The second stage,

perhaps cruelly, is characterised by

an apparent lull in symptoms. Again,

the length of time can vary — anything

up to a few weeks.

The third stage is caused by damage

at the cellular level, and will

vary between different types of ARS.

The most severe syndrome causes

damage to blood vessels, leading to

fluid build up in the skull, and causing

death within three days. The

fourth stage is either recovery or, in

the case of severe ARS, death.

Once poisoned, radioactive isotopes

inside or on the victim can

pose a threat to others too. In the

podcast, Craig Mazin tells the story

of a man who, while trying to rescue

a colleague on the night of the explosion,

suffered a burn on his

shoulder in a precise handprint from

the man he had been supporting. In

the programme some of this is incredibly

difficult to watch. Based on

a true story reported in Svetlana

Alexievich's Chernobyl Prayer, we follow

a young couple as the husband,

a firefighter who attended Cherobyl,

becomes increasingly sick. His wife

is told that it is unsafe for her to visit

or touch him, making it impossible

to safely embrace. He dies painfully,

and is buried in a lead-lined grave.

The Human Cost

The number of deaths in the aftermath

of Chernobyl is difficult to

accurately state. Fewer than 50

deaths are directly linked to the incident

— almost all of whom were

present on the scene on the night of

blast, either working in the reactor

or as first responders. There is evidence

of an increase of childhood

and adolescent thyroid cancers in

the years following the explosion,

but survival rates for these were

over 90%. The World Health Organization

estimate 4,000 deaths can

be attributed to radiation, but they

also note in their 2005 report that

the traumas of mass evacuation,

extreme poverty, and a "paralysing

fatalism" following myths and fears


around the incident could have had

as much of an impact on people's

health [11].

While the numbers may not be as

high as some reports state, statistics

cannot capture or rule out the

huge human cost that this disaster

had. Reading Chernobyl Prayer

takes you through this from many

angles: for those who stayed in the

exclusion zone because they

couldn't face leaving their homes;

those who were evacuated and felt

unwelcome or even feared in the

towns they were relocated to; people

who worked in the clean-up operation

and suffered after-effects including

infertility; people who

terminated pregnancies for fear of

the effects the radiation might have;

and those families who did lose children

to cancer or loved ones to radiation

sickness. This toll should not

be ignored.


The legacy on the people affected

by Chernobyl may be complicated,

but the legacy in the exclusion zone

from where they were evacuated is

surprising. Recently, one of my

friends told me her brother was going

on holiday to Chernobyl. At first, I

was convinced she must be mistaken

— my understanding was that

the exclusion zone would be uninhabitable

for the next few thousand

years. More fool me. You can go on

a wildlife tour, visit an art installation,

and buy novelty fridge magnets

there now. There's even a Chernobyl

vodka, aptly named 'atomik' [12]. It

is jarring though; after visiting the

concrete 'sarcophagus' that now

covers the reactor site, Guardian

writer Tom Seymour posted a picture

of it on his instagram. A friend messaged

him to say: "That thing killed

my grandmother [...] And now it's a

disco…" [13]. To many, it is still too

soon and too distasteful to make a

novelty out of this tragedy — though

it's worth acknowledging the need

for economic regeneration for those

living in and around the exclusion

zone as an important driver for this.

But there is one shred of silver

lining. Wildlife seems to be thriving

in the zone now that they have been

left free of human activity. Packs of

wolves and herds of bison can be

seen. Badgers, voles, moose, deer,

foxes, and many bird species have

settled into the area, with no obvious

consequences from radiation

exposure. In 1998, the rare Przewalski's

horse was introduced to the

area in an effort to prevent their ex-

Science in the Spotlight

tinction; their numbers have been

increasing ever since [14].

The legacy beyond the bounds

of the exclusion zone is more complicated.

In Sweden, food produce

from the area was affected, and

thousands of reindeer were culled

in the years following Chernobyl

[15]. Over thirty years later, the radiation

levels for some products

are still returning to normal. As

Spiderman learned the hard way,

with great power comes great responsibility.

And when it comes to

nuclear power, failing to respect

that responsibility can lead to dire


We are still learning to respect

it. Tokyo Electric Power failed to

take appropriate safety measures

ahead of the 2011 tsunami in Japan,

ultimately playing a role in Japan's

worst ever reactor meltdown

at Fukushima [16]. But in responding

to nuclear catastrophe,

we've learned from the past and,

in some instances, potentially even

over-reacted. Following the

Fukushima incident, some estimates

believe that mass-evacuations

may have led to more

deaths than low-level radiation exposure

would have caused if

people had remained in their

homes. Recently, efforts to prove

the safety of food produced in the

area have caused controversy, and

there has been a furore over the

possibility of 'radioactive food' being

served to athletes at the Tokyo

Olympic Games [17]. However,

thousands of food samples from

the region have passed safety

checks, and the Japanese government

has even stricter standards

than the UK and US for allowable

levels of radiation in food production.

Nuclear fear-mongering may

be detrimental to Japanese agriculture

for years to come.

Chernobyl is an undoubtedly

compelling TV drama, but it's useful

to remember that it is just a

drama. Nuclear energy is controversial

for good reason, but we

may struggle to meet energy targets

without investing in it; the

Chernobyl miniseries certainly

won't help to sway public opinion

toward this option. The show repeatedly

asks "what is the cost of

lies?" and we may need to consider

what we mean by this in relation

to nuclear energy in 2020.

The cost of spreading panic and

continuing to rule out nuclear energy

may be higher than we bargained



Science in the Spotlight

Step aside Quorn, soy, seitan and

the rest of the fake-meat wannabes.

A future of man-made, environmentally

friendly meat (yes,

real meat) may be on the horizon.

Clean meat, cellular agriculture and

in vitro meat are terms being tossed

around to describe the rising field of

laboratory-produced meat. Cellular

agriculture is the production of

meat, as well as other animal

products, from cell culture in a lab

as opposed to livestock on a farm.

Using established biotechnological

methods, cellular agriculture could

offer a promising alternative to traditional

meat-eaters: one that’s

both cruelty-free and sustainable.

Our diet and consumer habits

have a large collective impact on the

environment, with meat production

representing a huge source of

greenhouse gas emissions. Going

vegan is said to be the single

biggest way you can reduce your impact

on the earth and it’s well

known that this lifestyle choice is on

the rise. In 2016, there were over

half a million vegans in the UK [2]

myself included! However, as I know

all too well, it’s not for everyone and

for many, meat is still an important

part of daily life. Cellular agriculture

promises to fulfil both the food industry’s

shift towards sustainability

and the carnivorous demands of


Lab-grown meat is no mere pie in

the sky. In 2013, cellular agriculture

made the news and became a reality

when Mark Post and his team

from Maastricht University unveiled

the world’s first tissue-engineered

hamburger in London. Mark Post

now runs Mosa Meat [3], one of the

many start-up companies that exist

The need for a new way to produce

food is pressing. We’re currently

living on the busiest Earth

ever, with around 7% of humans to

have ever lived residing on the

planet today. And it’s only getting

busier, with the UN predicting that,

in 2050, the world population will

have risen to 9.8 billion people. All

around us, the effects of a booming

population and human-generated

greenhouse gases are difficult to

ignore. 2019 saw a series of natural

disasters. The California wildfires,

flooding in India and Typhoon Hagibis

in Japan were all more severe

as a result of climate change [1].

Climate change is a global emergency

and our window of opportunity

to prevent its worst impacts from

being realised is closing fast. The

way we are living needs to change.


Science in the Spotlight

in this expanding industry. The process

of cellular agriculture usually

relies on stem cells - cells with the

potential to develop into any other

possible cell of an organism, and

which can be extracted from an animal

in a relatively easy and painfree

procedure. The cells are grown

in a bioreactor on specialised scaffolding

material. Here, cells are given

the precise environment,

nutrients and proteins needed to

grow into muscle, fat or connective

tissue cells. We can effectively

mimic the cell maturation and specialisation

process that would occur

in the development of an animal,

without using the animal itself.

In a recent documentary, Apocalypse

Cow: How Meat Killed the

Planet by George Monbiot (which

you can stream on Channel 4) [4],

the prospect of cellular agriculture

is not only considered, but deemed

absolutely necessary by the environmental

campaigner if we want to

continue eating meat. Consequently,

he calls for an end to agricultural

farming as we know it.

Here’s his case: UK farmland for

grazing livestock and growing grass

takes up a shocking 55% of the

country’s surface [5]. This is undoubtedly

inefficient and environmentally

unsustainable. For

example, comparing emission figures

of long-haul flights from the

UK government to emissions of

meat production, Monbiot has

claimed that producing just 4kg of

beef can have as high a carbon footprint

to a single passenger taking a

return flight from London to New

York. [6] Monbiot explores the idea

of rewilding the land taken up by

livestock in the UK, and looks to a

successful example in Holland.

Here, they have restored natural

ecosystems by reintroducing native

animals and plants and letting

nature take its course. Could Britain

do the same if we ditched farming

and turned to biotechnology to produce

meat for our Sunday roasts,

ham toasties and sausage rolls?

Fewer farmed animals, lower environmental

costs, and the re-expansion

of natural habitats and wildlife

make growing meat in the lab an exciting

prospect. This new approach

to farming meat is not on the

shelves just yet; hurdles including

regulation, cost, scalability and public

perception still have to be overcome.

However, embracing cellular

agriculture could be one of the

most pivotal ways in the 21st century

we reduce our negative impact

on the Earth. With the increasing

risk of climate change wiping us all

out in the future, humanity is at



Science in the Spotlight

Do animals mourn?

In 2013, a video [1] taken in the

Kenyan Samburu National Reserve

showed a group of elephants inspecting

the carcass of a dead

matriarch – the female leader of a

herd of elephants. The manner in

which these creatures lingered

around the body and touched the

bones sparked a debate: are these

creatures really grieving? This case

has not been the only one. The increase

in reports of mourning animals

and the ever-growing fight for

animal rights have led to an open

discussion on this subject. If they

truly are mourning, how could this

change the way we view grief and

animal emotions?

One of the first documented examples

of an animal appearing to

mourn was in the late 19th century.

Two chimpanzees in the Philadelphia

Zoological Garden had

lived together for many months and

developed an intimate relationship;

they never fought, often put their

arms around one another, and defended

each other. One morning,

one of the chimps passed away. The

naturalist Arthur E. Brown described

how distressing it was to witness

the other's acts of anger and grief.

It demonstrated rage-like behaviours

involving tearing its hair and

violently trying to rouse the other

chimp. The yells eventually became

a mourn-like cry which the keeper

assured they had never heard before

[2]. Another striking example

comes from a detailed account by

Jane Goodall (the world's leading

authority on chimpanzees who studied

them for over 50 years) that describes

how a young chimpanzee

was unable to cope with the death

of his mother in Tanzania's Gombe

Stream National Park. He grew lethargic,

refused food, fell sick, and finally

died a month later [3].

On another note, some of the

most impactful cases of grieving

have been documented in cetaceans.

In August 2018, images of a

mother orca carrying her dead calf

for two weeks went viral after scientists

at the Center for Whale Research

witnessed and documented

the harrowing event off the shore of

Vancouver Island [4] [5]. Dr Joan

Gonzalvo of the Ionian Dolphin Project

(a group focused on Research

and Conservation of Dolphins in the

Ionian Sea, Greece) also described

an occasion where an entire pod of

dolphins struggled to keep a dying

calf afloat and then remained in the

area for a period of time after the

body finally sank [6] [7].

Although these examples (and

most media stories) feature large

mammals, these aren't the only

creatures that have been reported

to mourn. Man's best friend has


Science in the Spotlight

long been a source of such stories,

including Greyfriars Bobby and

Hachiko as well as books which

delve deeper into the psychology

and science of grieving in dogs.

Marc Berkoff, Professor Emeritus of

Evolutionary Biology at the University

of Colorado Boulder and author

of the book Canine

Confidential: Why Dogs Do What

They Do, stated that dogs don't understand

the concept of loss or

death but do recognize that a companion

is missing. In response, they

show behavioural changes such as

a lack of appetite, sleeping more

than usual, or withdrawing from

people and other pets – a collection

of symptoms that sounds

rather familiar. Even if dogs do not

comprehend the metaphysical implications

of the death, their

change in behaviour implies at

least a minimal understanding of


All of these examples describe behaviour

that can be interpreted as

grieving or mourning; but what are

the definitions of these terms? The

Cambridge Dictionary defines both

grieving and mourning as "to feel or

express great sadness, especially

because of someone's death". Furthermore,

Barbara J. King, an emeritus

professor of anthropology and

author of How Animals Grieve (a

book I highly recommend for those

interested in this subject), defines

grief and mourning as "significant

deviations from usual routines displayed

by survivors after the death

of a significant companion animal".

In her terms, there's no distinction

between grieving and mourning as

both result in a change of behaviour.

However, it is known that grieving

and feeling grief are intricately related.

Therefore, if we assert that

animals can mourn, can it be stated

that grieving animals actually feel

grief? Since the empirical definition

of mourning limits itself to objective

observations but the act of feeling

grief is impossible to measure. On a

more scientific basis, a study in baboons

observed a large increase in

the concentration of stress hormones

in their blood after losing a

close companion or child. This

proves that baboons feel stress as a

result of these losses [8].

It is difficult to ascertain whether

it's grief or curiosity that drives an

elephant to touch a dead body or if

a dog that "grieves" its companion

does so out of a sense of loss or

because he simply misses the act

of playing with his companion.

Presently, there are few studies that

focus on the feeling of grief in animals

due to the challenge of studying

animal emotions. Several problems

arise when investigating this topic:

the inability of animals to communicate

their feelings, the possibility

of anthropomorphising (attributing

human characteristics to animals)

their behaviour, and the variety of

mourning behaviour found across

the animal kingdom.

Among other reasons, a fear of

anthropomorphising has led scientists

to be reluctant to describe the

behaviour of any animal towards

one of their dead as "grieving". Perhaps

this is because we fear we are

projecting highly complex human

emotions onto animals or perhaps

because animals don't comprehend

the loss of a companion. Nonetheless,

the increasing number of observations

and anecdotal reports

prompt the scientific (and non-scientific)

community to begin to reconsider

grieving as an exclusively

human experience. Although humans

experience grief in a more

visible way (according to ourselves),

it might be that animals also experience

grief, but in a simpler form. As

Barbara King suggests, perhaps the

only thing that differentiates human

and animal grief is "[Homo Sapiens]

unique ability to fully anticipate the

inevitability of death (…) and to express

our losses in a thousand glorious

or ragged ways".


Science in the Spotlight


Science in the Spotlight

Deepfake data in

the post-truth era

Jordan takes a look into the world of

AI-generated images, and investigates

the ugly side of data manipulation.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine

learning are amazing tools

and valuable assets to businesses

and laboratories worldwide. As a

microscopist, I've used image analysis

tools, like Trainable Weka [1],

that use machine learning. These

tools make it remarkably easy to

segment images and save time

trawling through datasets. Some

advanced image analysis tools use

neural networks – algorithms that

are designed to work in a similar

way to the brain (at least conceptually

speaking). These algorithms

have the ability and plasticity required

to learn and change behaviours

based on ground truth and

have countless useful applications.

From my own experience, I've realised

that with adequate training,

these tools can separate cellular

structures within images just as

well as a human can (and in some

cases, even better).

What has followed, however, has

been interesting. This approach has

been used to create 'Deepfakes' –

convincing computer generated images

and video clips based on real

faces and voices. Deepfakes are

everywhere, you only need to type

that word into Google or YouTube

and you will be assaulted with a

barrage of fake videos, featuring

celebrities and politicians, all built

from sophisticated neural networks.

Alarmingly, there have even been

several instances of Deepfake porn

using celebrity faces.

What these things all have in

common is that they change data

rather than completely making it up.

Making you look older is easy

enough and with enough images

and audio clips of someone's face

and voice, you can then make them

perform fake speeches. The data is

believable because it's based on

ground truth.

As part of his presentation, Dr

Horváth showed us one of the problems

faced in image processing: the

lack of readily available datasets to

train machine learning tools. Vast

datasets are required to train the algorithms

and this data isn't always

accessible. For example, if you want

to teach a computer how to identify

tumour cells, you need to show it

lots of examples of what a tumour

cell looks like. However, patient data

like this is fiercely protected and difficult

to obtain. We can't possibly

hope to use artificial intelligence to

identify damaged cells if the programme

has never seen one before.

To overcome this, Réka Hollandi

from the Horváth group took the limited

data available and used image

style transfer – a fancy technique –

to produce super realistic images

that are completely separate from

the training data [4]. It's a bit like

me showing you some pictures of

Turns out, machine learning isn't

just good at analysing data – it's

also pretty good at manipulating it.

Assuming you haven't been living

under a rock, you'll remember the

2019 internet craze of FaceApp.

Using neural network-based AI, this

novelty app could make you look

older or younger, and even show

you what you would look like as the

opposite sex – with scarily believable

results in some cases. For a

short time, the app even had features

to make you "hotter", although

this was swiftly removed due to racial

discrimination [2]. The app was

entertaining and I used it extensively

myself, although it quickly lost

its novelty factor.

However, what happens when AI

becomes so smart that it can completely

make up believable images?

I first learned about this while at a

talk given by Dr. Péter Horváth - a

multidisciplinary computational cell

biologist from the Institute of Molecular

Medicine Finland [3].

Dalmatians, then asking you to draw

a Dalmatian from memory. Yes, I've

trained you with some prior knowledge,

but the Dalmatian you draw

will be completely unique. Now imagine

that I did the same with a computer

- and the picture it drew

looked exactly like a real photo of a

never-before-seen Dalmatian. That's


Science in the Spotlight

what this technique achieves but

with microscopy pictures of cells.

When these augmented computer-generated

images were shown

to pathologists, they were largely unable

to tell the difference between

them and the real data. By generating

these training sets, the information

gap between academics and

clinicians is bridged – all without violating

patient data protection. A

images are so similar to real data

that they slip through the net?

I contacted Péter Horváth and

Réka Hollandi to ask them their

thoughts about this and they share

my concerns. They showed me how

easily the data is generated and

commented on how researchers

with questionable practices could

use this to their gain. According to

Dr Horváth, big papers like Nature

Sadly, this is something we are

going to need to prepare for. As analysing

data gets easier, so does

fabricating it. Hopefully, scientific

magazines can train their own networks

to spot fake images and can

stay a step or two ahead in the cat

and mouse game. People will always

find a way to cheat. So, remain

critical and challenge data

you don't think looks right. In this

post-truth era, seeing isn't always


great innovation, with practical

applications for the medical


Though ever being the cynic, I

don't see it that way. What Réka Hollandi

has achieved is to be praised -

let's be clear on that - but I worry

what this kind of software may be

used to achieve among the rogue

scientists in the community. All too

often, papers are retracted when

someone notices that they contain

manipulated data – but usually the

authors try to do this in Photoshop

(and god forbid, some of it looks like

it was done in MS Paint). But what

can we do when these pixel-perfect

will have their own filters to spot

fakes but he seriously doubts they

would be able to pick up data generated

in this way.

With technology like this, rogue

scientists could produce a

manuscript with realistic images

without ever even having to set foot

in the lab. Up until now, data manipulation

usually occurred when the

results just weren't good enough, or

when they didn't fit the hypothesis in

mind. Data was changed, not created.


Science in the Spotlight

How is measles




In August 2019, the UK lost

its 'measles-free' status. More

recently, the first case of polio in

27 years was documented in a 3-

year-old boy from Malaysia. There is

concern that we will see a rise in

frightening news headlines like

these if appropriate action isn't

taken. These cases have fuelled discussions

about the decline in uptake

of vaccines (which could

prevent these reported cases) and

the possibility of introducing new

vaccine policies which may help

stop preventable problems like this

happening in the future. Strikingly,

the World Health Organization

(WHO) has stated that vaccine hesitancy

is in the top 10 list of global

threats. So what does it really mean

to lose the 'measles-free' status?

This is appointed by the WHO and is

defined as an area or a country that

has had no regular transmission of

the infection in that designated area

in 12 months [1]. The UK was given

it's 'measles-free' status in 2016,

successfully maintaining it for less

than four years.

"the World Health Organization has stated

vaccine hesitancy is in the top 10 list of

global threats"

The rise in measles cases, and

the loss of the 'measles-free' status

in the UK, Greece and several other

countries in Europe and around the

world, may have been caused by

multiple factors. Firstly, with

measles 'under control', it is

thought that people have forgotten

how serious and life-threatening

measles can be. The measles virus

is, in fact, one of the most infectious

diseases on the planet. Symptoms

include fever, light sensitivity

and a rash, which in most cases

subside in a week to 10 days [2].

However, in some individuals, there

can be complications which can

prove fatal. Additionally, measles

infection has a significant impact on

the immune system in the short

and long-term. In the first instance,

measles decreases the number of

white blood cells in the body. It is

these cells which are responsible for

fighting other infections. This means

during measles infection, individuals

will be more vulnerable to other

pathogens. In the longer-term, a recent

study has shown that measles

can impact immunological memory


This study involved sequencing

antibody genes from children before

and after measles infection. It was

found that memory immune cells,

trained to recognise and fight secondary

infection, were absent from

the blood in children after measles.

It was also found that the immune

system was more immature postmeasles

infection which means other

diseases the child had not yet

been exposed to would also be more

difficult to develop immunity against.

This study has shown that a vaccine

against measles infection is not only

protection against measles itself, but

against the many other infections a

person may be exposed to in their


It is also important to remember

that it is the most vulnerable populations

in society that are at the

highest risk of getting infected.

Young babies, the elderly and people

who are immunocompromised, who

cannot get vaccinated themselves,

are reliant on the rest of the population

being vaccinated and keeping

the disease in the population low.

Another reason attributed to the

rise in measles cases is the misinformation

and disinformation

spread surrounding the safety and

efficacy of vaccines. Research

from the Netherlands demonstrates

the exponential damage a

rise in measles can have and the

importance of large vaccine coverage

in a population. The MMR vaccine,

protecting against measles,

mumps and rubella, is 97% effective

after 2 doses, and 93% after

only 1 dose [4]. Yet, a discredited

study from 1998 regarding this

seems to stick in people's minds.

Andrew Wakefield published a paper

in a well known medical journal

linking the MMR vaccine to

autism. There have been many articles

since showing there is no link

and the paper has been retracted,

with Wakefield being found guilty

of fraud. Additionally, a lot of mistrust

may come from disproportionate

reporting in the media.

Up until recently, measles cases

were rare and therefore the frightening

symptoms were not talked

about regularly. Yet a rare side effect,

such as an allergic reaction

from a vaccinated child, could gain

a lot of media coverage and fuel

the anti-vaccination movement. In

the case of the Wakefield study, it

gained a lot of media coverage at

the time, despite the very small

sample size in the study as well as

other questionable methods used.

20 years on, social media makes

the spread of misinformation and

disinformation even easier. One

study has revealed that 50% of

parents with children under 5

came across negative messages

regarding vaccination online [5].


Science in the Spotlight

And another study has reported that

much of this messaging comes from

online bots, that can churn out an

alarming rate of misinformation per

hour [6]. With the levels of misinformation

appearing only to be on

the rise, something needs to be done

"a vaccine against measles

infection is not only

protection against measles

itself, but against... many

other infections"

to counteract the damage. One such

method that has been suggested to

tackle this, is a change in vaccine


In the UK currently vaccines are

not compulsory, however, the policies

surrounding vaccines have varied

considerably over the last 2 centuries

[7]. In 1853, a vaccine against smallpox

was made compulsory for all

children under 3 months. Non-compliant

parents were subject to a fine.

This rigorous vaccine campaign was

hugely successful, resulting in the

elimination of smallpox first from the

UK, and globally in 1990. As such, in

1873, all vaccination was made compulsory,

with fines or even risk of arrest

for parents who did not comply.

Yet, records suggest that the compulsory

nature of vaccination discouraged

parents. In the 1870s,

anti-vaccination movements began to

rise, with an anti-vaccination rally in

Leicester in 1885 attracting over

100,000 people. Leicester was

chosen as the rally site based on the

fact people believed the locals had

an alternative strategy to vaccination.

This involved quarantine of those affected

and the healthcare professionals

in charge were vaccinated

themselves, providing a protective

gate effect. The reasons parents

were wary about vaccination varied,

from the use of cow protein in the

vaccines, which was a difficult

concept for people to understand scientifically

and religiously, to mistrust

about how smallpox was transmitted

and therefore the need for vaccination

at all [8].

From a health point of view, vaccination

in the 1800s was certainly

more dangerous than it is now due to

the technology available and legislation

around health care providers and

people did die as a result. However,

as is true now, the benefits for most

far outway the risks. After years of

protests from Leicester and beyond,

in 1898 there was an amendment

made to the vaccination act that removed

the fines for non-compliance.

This policy gave parents the right to

choose what they deemed safe for

their child. This was subject to an application

to magistrates to gain an

exemption certificate, which had to

be approved before a child was 4

months old. However, there were often

delays, or exemptions not granted

which meant in 1907, another act

was passed that removed the need

for an exemption certificate making it

even easier for parents to make the

decision not to vaccinate.

The WHO is not responsible for

suggesting the means by which

countries can increase the vaccination

uptake and different countries

take a variety of approaches. Australia

offers a financial incentive for

complying with vaccines – parents

choosing to vaccinate their children

will be given two payments of $129

Australian dollars when children

complete their vaccinations in 2 age

brackets [9]. Within the US, policies

vary from state to state. Vaccines are

compulsory, however, exemptions are

granted on various grounds including

religion or philosophical beliefs as

well as medical reasons. Studies

have shown that the easier it is to file

for an exemption from mandatory

vaccination, the more people will apply

for such exemption. Slovenia also

has compulsory vaccination programmes

yet this country is a good

example that demonstrates the benefits

mandatory vaccination can

have on compliance. Vaccination

against 9 diseases, including polio

and tuberculosis, are compulsory and

the country has achieved a 95%

compliance rate. Conversely, the human

papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination

is non-mandatory and

unfortunately has a compliance rate

of less than 50%.

It appears that the vaccine policy

landscape across the globe is extremely

varied and it's not a one size

fits all approach. So what approach

should the UK take? There have been

discussions in the last year with the

health secretary that there will be a

take on a 'no jab, no school' policy.

This would mean children without

compulsory vaccines, for diseases including

measles, would be unable to

attend school (where diseases like

measles are likely to spread). France

has implemented a policy similar to

this – children have 11 compulsory

vaccines, without which they cannot

attend school. This was mandated in

2018, an increase in 9 compulsory

vaccinations. Non-compliance can

result in a fine or imprisonment.

Italy, who suffered 37% of all

measles deaths in Europe between

January 2016 and June 2017, also

has a policy which states school attendance

is reliant on vaccine compliance.

[10]. When enrolling children


in preschools or schools run by the

state, proof of vaccination will be required.

If this can't be provided, parents

will be fined. The success of

these campaigns has been difficult to

establish so far. In France, there is no

central hub for collecting data on

vaccine uptake, so it may take some

time before success can reliably be

measured. In Italy, since the compulsory

vaccine mandate, vaccination

rates for MMR and polio have increased.

However, there are concerns

about access to vaccines

across the country which may require

improvements in infrastructure and

funding, if the mandate is to be a

true success.

A recent study has tried to answer

the question of the effectiveness of

these policies on vaccine uptake and

disease prevention in high-income

countries [11]. This study noted that

these countries pose a significant

challenge, as there is a higher proportion

of elderly individuals than in

lower-income countries. This means

there is a higher level of the popula-

Science in the Spotlight

tion susceptible to measles or other

diseases if there is an outbreak,

meaning high vaccine coverage is

crucial. The research took the approach

of computationally modelling

the levels of measles immunity in

seven countries between 2018 and

2050 based on various methods to

increase vaccine compliance. They

showed that the numbers of

measles-susceptible individuals

would increase in all countries studied

if no changes to policy were

made. The results from this study

suggested that by adjusting current

methods measles would be eliminated

in the UK, Ireland, the US and

Italy but not Singapore and South

Korea. The research also suggested

that focusing efforts on implementing

policies for compulsory vaccination

was not enough and educational

programmes for adults would be


The response to the UK initiating

such a mandate has left people divided.

Some believe that it is necessary

if cases of measles are not to

increase. However, some people think

it is not yet time for requirements

from the government, and parents

believe it is their right to choose what

happens with their children's health –

mostly stemming from their mistrust

in vaccines. For those unsure about a

government mandate, suggestions for

an alternative to policy change would

be to provide suitable time slots for

vaccination, and allowing sufficient

time for any questions from concerned

parents to be answered, despite

the inconvenience of

appointment times only being a negative

factor for a small proportion of

parents [12].

At the moment, the measles virus is

gaining increasingly more power. Vaccines

themselves are incredibly effective

if they are used, there just

needs to be a better way to enable

this. So whether it be a new policy,

adult education programmes, a way to

stop misinformation spread or a combination

of all of these, let's hope that

a successful strategy is found sooner

rather than later.


Science in the Spotlight


Science in the Spotlight

A bad influence?

When Kim Kardashian posted a

sponsored advert for appetite-suppressant

lollipops on Instagram

last year [1], she most likely

thought it was just another day in

the life and career of a social media

influencer; after all, it wasn't

the first post she had made promoting

a weight-loss product, and

she was far from the only influencer

to do so. This time, however,

she was met with heavy criticism –

most notably from Jameela Jamil,

British actress and founder of the 'I

Weigh' body positivity movement –

because it was felt that this particular

product targeted children.

To date, Kardashian has over

150 million followers on Instagram,

so most popular news outlets spent

days reporting on her lollipopthemed

saga. Three months prior,

much less media attention was

paid to the publication of NHS data

showing that hospital admissions

for eating disorders increased by

191% over the previous six-year

period [2]. With the biggest increase

shown in teenage patients,

and with research demonstrating

that social media affects body image

in adolescents, it is understandable

and justified that diet

products aimed at such at-risk

groups receive this kind of condemnation.

It begs the question,

however – when eating disorder

rates are increasing for adults too,

why don't adverts targeting this

demographic receive the same

level of contempt?

Perhaps it's assumed that

adults have the capability to make

completely informed

and independent decisions,

free from the

effects of marketing

campaigns. This ignores

the strong effects

of popular media

culture on our

choices, even on those who believe

themselves to be unaffected [3]. As

modern technologies such as TiVo

and AdBlocker allow users to bypass

more traditional advertising

methods, marketers have sought

out new ways to reach target audiences,

leading to the rise of influencer

promotions. While traditional

marketing sells a product, social

media influencers essentially sell a

lifestyle. They share so much of

their lives online that followers feel

as if they know them. This makes

their promotions feel

like recommendations

from a trusted friend.

The result is that whilst

traditional adverts are

seen as an annoyance

to be avoided, 1 in 4

people in the UK have

purchased something

based on an influencer's

promotion and 1 in 5 say they actually

like seeing sponsored posts

from influencers [4].

On the other hand, it's perhaps

assumed that since they are being

publicly advertised, these products

are safe to use. Unfortunately,

that's not necessarily the case.

Here in the UK, over-the-counter

anorectic drugs (also commonly

known as appetite suppressants)

are not regulated by the Medicines

and Healthcare Products Regulatory

Agency (MHRA) and their history as

a prescription product highlights

their potential dangers.

Until 2010, anorectic drugs were

prescribed by the NHS to people over

a certain BMI. Doctors were able to

look at patients' existing conditions

and medications: they understood

when it was appropriate to offer a

prescription and when it wasn't. This

practice stopped entirely upon the

discovery that sibutramine hydrochloride

monohydrate, the active ingredient

in the most popular

anorectic drug of the time, was associated

with increased risk of heart

attack and stroke. Products containing

this active ingredient were

promptly banned by the European

Medicines Agency (EMA) and were

withdrawn from NHS prescription as

a result. It was an example of regulatory

bodies working well to ensure

product safety and suitability.

In comparison, people purchasing

products via social media adverts

are rarely fully informed about the

potential risks associated with their

personal circumstances. With a correlation

established between depression

and poor body image [5],

one concern is that people taking

antidepressants may be more likely

to purchase these products, not

realising the risk attached to combining

their medication with weightloss



Science in the Spotlight

Many anorectic drugs work via

what is known as a serotonergic effect:

they work to inhibit the reuptake

of the neurotransmitter

serotonin, leading to increased

serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin

has been associated with an

increased feeling of satiation; the

higher the amount of this neurotransmitter

in your system, the

longer you feel full on a smaller

portion of food. This isn't its only

effect however. Higher levels are

also linked with feelings of happiness

and calm, which is why antidepressants

called selective

serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SS-

RIs) work to achieve the same result.

Many people will not think to

mention over-the-counter supplements

or diet products to their doctor

as they don't think of them as

medicine. This unintentional withholding

of information can lead

doctors to prescribe a higher

dosage of SSRIs than is safe and

may potentially increase a patient's

risk of serotonin syndrome, a set of

worrying symptoms linked to an

overproduction of serotonin. While

rarely observed, in some extreme

cases it can be fatal.

These are just the occasions

where anorectic drugs interact with

other drugs or existing conditions. It

doesn't touch on the many potential

side effects that can occur based

purely on anorectic drugs taken by

a healthy individual, which include

pulmonary hypertension, vision loss

and increased risk of stroke. Most

people don't expect these to be the

risks when purchasing a publicly

advertised product. Some progress

has been made, albeit very slowly.

The Advertising Standards Authority

(ASA) recently banned promotional

posts made by reality stars Lauren

Goodger and Katie Price, stating

that photoshopping their body

shape in images whilst promoting

weight loss products was irresponsible

and misleading. It's a

positive step forward to see the

harmful and disingenuous effects

of photoshopping being formally

addressed. However, the product

being promoted by Goodger and

Price contained the active ingredient

glucomannan. This has been

found to have no real effect on

weight loss and has been linked to

pulmonary hypertension. In fact, it

is specifically not recommended for

diabetics as it may interfere with

blood sugar control. Interestingly

enough, even though neither of the

banned promotions had thought to

mention that, that wasn't a factor in

their ban.

Unfortunately, regulation of social

media promotions seems limited.

The ASA will crack down on promotions

making unfounded health

claims (such as saying a product

will promote weight loss when there

is no research to demonstrate that)

and they insist that if an influencer

is being paid for a promotion, this

must be disclosed. However, the

only disclosure required is the inclusion

of a small “#ad” at the end

of each post. With no official regulation

addressing the issue, it is

common for promotions to be posted

without warnings of potential

side effects.

Perhaps this is where real change

needs to begin: with stricter regulations

of social media advertising. If

diet supplement advertisements

on social media were required to

state the side effects clearly, it

might not only make the followers

think twice about buying it,

but also make influencers reconsider

their promotions; because

after all, if readers aren't getting

the whole story from brands,

who's to say the influencers are?

Further, if the sponsored nature

of influencer posts had to be declared

clearly at the start of the

post, rather than via a two letter

hashtag nestled in amongst

multiple others, it would prevent

people from assuming these are

personal recommendations that

can be blindly and wholly



Science in the Spotlight

HKPF, you’ve got

some nerve:

Exploring the long-term

effects of tear gas exposure.

The 2019 Hong Kong protests

were sparked by the attempted introduction

of the extradition law: a

bill which would allow extradition of

accused criminals to places where

Hong Kong currently doesn't have

extradition agreements. This meant

that people accused of crimes

could have been sent to mainland

China, a place that is known for its

lack of human rights. On June 9th

2019, more than one million people

marched against this bill, but to no


The government paid no notice to

the will of the people and proceeded

to pass the bill. So, on June

12th following the second reading

of the amendment, protestors

gathered outside the Legislative

Counsel (LegCo) which led to unrest

between them and police. This was

the first incident where the police

fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

The protests were held every

Sunday and had been occurring

with increasing frequency until the

outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The protests caught worldwide news

headlines when there was a standoff

between protesters and riot police

in the Chinese University of

Hong Kong [1].

When used within the recommended

guidelines, tear gas is merely a

tool for dispersing crowds and has

minor and short lived side effects. It

is a nerve agent known for making

its victims experience tears, skin irritation,

rashes, coughing and

wheezing. The Geneva protocol allows

for the use of tear gas to disperse

crowds in riots. However, since

the protestors wear gas masks they

do not feel the immediate effects

and it is rendered useless. The excessive

use by the Hong Kong Police

Force (HKPF) in retaliation to the

wearing of gas masks is extremely


Hong Kong is very closely packed

together with high skyscrapers and

narrow roads, meaning that when

tear gas is fired, it has no place to

go. Tear gas just sits stagnant on the

streets with little airstream to move

it. One of the only directions to go is

up and into air conditioning units or

through poorly sealed windows, affecting

those not taking part in the

protests. The HKPF have also been

known to fire tear gas into MTR stations

(Hong Kong's railway system)

where tear gas cannot escape.

Tear gas is also very dangerous if


Science in the Spotlight

Most countries who use tear gas

as a riot control tool thoroughly deusing

expired canisters, which can

be chemically unstable. Using expired

tear gas greatly increases the

risk of producing dangerous levels

of cyanide, which is normally produced

in small and not dangerous

amounts. A Reddit user claiming to

be a protester posted a photo of an

expired tear gas canister, allegedly

fired by police. While this is difficult

to verify, the post was widely circulated

online [2]. The Hong Kong

Free Press reported that the police

have admitted to using expired canisters

in the past, however the police

have failed to respond to this

latest incident.

From Studio Incendo: 'A photo taken at a protest

event of the anti-extradition bill, showing an expired

tear gas "03/2016" (three years ago).'

Before the coronovirus pandemic,

protests were held every week and

the police continued to use excessive

volumes of tear gas. Upwards of

85% of Hong Kong's citizens have

now been exposed to tear gas.

Since protests began, doctors in

Hong Kong have seen a rise in respiratory

infections (bronchitis), lung

inflammation (pneumonitis) and

coughing up blood (haemoptysis).

However, there is currently no citywide

registry for such cases to be


contaminate areas in which it has

been fired to prevent long term

damage to its citizens. Hong Kong

does not. The blatant lack of care

for their own citizens is concerning

and the excessive use of tear gas

will continue to have long term

health effects on both protestors

and bystanders. It is time that governments

worldwide stand up

against police brutality in Hong

Kong, lest we end up responsible

for a generation with serious health

conditions and the eventual loss of

a great nation to a tyrannical dictator.

There is a demand for one to be

created by healthcare professionals

to log hard evidence on the effects

of tear gas and protect the citizens

of Hong Kong, many of whom are

not partaking in the protests yet are

still being affected. This includes

the very young and the very old,

both of whom have increased sensitivity

to tear gas. Babies have small

lungs; exposure to a given amount

of tear gas can produce more damage

than in an adult. Similarly, the

eyes and skin of a baby have thinner

layers of protection.

A part of the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests,

the Tsuen Wan March took place on August 25, 2019.


Science in the Spotlight


Science in the Spotlight

The Modern

Space Race

Miriam explores the new space

race to the moon and beyond.

Space races are exciting, there's

no denying it. However, unlike the

iconic space race of old between

Cold War rivals, a slew of billionaires

are vying to come out on top

of this new competition. With 2019

marking 50 years since the Apollo

moon landing, nothing seems to

have captured public attention

more than this historic event. Having

said that, the space sector is

currently undergoing a renaissance.

In this era, coined "New Space"

[1], NASA has obtained a reduced

role. It's not countries that will be

sector leaders but business leaders

instead. And in the near future, it

may well be that anyone with a big

enough chequebook can become a

space tourist [2]. In the golden age

of spaceflight, widely considered to

be the Apollo era, it would be difficult

to imagine that NASA's supremacy

would be diminished.

However, with strict budget cuts and

private companies like SpaceX

showing that they can launch rockets

as well, the tides are changing


You might think that a space trip

is the top answer to a billionaire's

mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, these

projects have been in the pipeline

for many years and when they have

that much spare cash to burn, who

could blame them [4]?

Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and

Jeff Bezos are together pushing

boundaries with, to all appearances,

an unlimited budget. But

what goal are these billionaires trying

to attain? Jeff Bezos, the

founder of Amazon, was the first to

emerge onto the private scene with

his company Blue Origin in 2000.

The company believes that "in order

to preserve Earth, our home, for our

grandchildren's grandchildren, we

must go to space to tap its unlimited

resources and energy" [5].

Blue Origin is well known for their

work developing the New Shepard

rocket, named after Mercury astronaut

Alan Shepard. New Shepard is

a suborbital rocket that travels high

enough to reach the edge of outer

space without having the energy to

achieve orbit. This incorporates a

crew capsule with the aim of carrying

future paying customers for

suborbital space tourism. Decembber

11th of 2019 marked New

Shepard's sixth space flight. It has

carried numerous experiments over

its multiple missions [6].

Elon Musk's SpaceX came to light

just two years after Blue Origin. His

company aims to "revolutionize

space technology, with the ultimate

goal of enabling people to live on

other planets". In 2010, they became

the first private company able

to return a spacecraft from a low

Earth orbit. Since then they have

gained global recognition for their

achievements. They were the creators

of the Dragon spacecraft which

delivered cargo to and from the International

Space Station successfully.

Commercially, this spacecraft

was the first of its kind. In recent

years, they began launching their

Falcon Heavy, "the world's most

powerful operational rocket" [7].

Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic

is attempting to be the first to offer

commercial human spaceflight.

Their mission involves "using space

for good" by trying to open up space

to everyone [8]. However, current

attempts have not been without

agony. Five years ago VSS Enterprise

scattered pieces of itself over

the Mojave Desert during a test

flight. The result was the death of

the co-pilot, a father of two [9]. This

is a sobering reality of spaceflight

but something astronauts and

space sector employees understand

as a risk of the job.

Years on, they have regrouped.

As the company prepares for commercial

flights, it has been able to

raise $450 million by going public

on the New York Stock Exchange.

They haven't given a date for their

first planned commercial flight, but

it's presumed that it will be sometime

in 2020. Their crews have, on

previous test flights, entered space

twice. In anticipation of commercial


Science in the Spotlight

flight, Virgin Galactic have transferred

development and production

staff to Spaceport America from

their site in the Mojave desert [10].

Competition remains the essence

of every race. But where does this

race leave the big players like NASA

and ESA? The US Senate not long

ago confirmed General Jay Raymond

to lead the brand spanking

new US Space Command. US Space

Command is part of 11 commands

in the Department of Defense and

focuses on defending the interests

of the US in space. General Raymond

recently met Branson, Bezos

and Musk [11] and seems excited

about the possibilities of how space

command can benefit from strides

made by the private sector. Given

that these two entities have different

priorities it may be that they will

work well hand in hand.

It's no surprise, given news over

the past few years that NASA's next

long term goal is to send humans to

Mars. But don't begin the countdown

just yet. There are still many

technological barriers that need to

be broken down first. Many believe

that it would be prudent to first

send humans back to the moon

with NASA aiming to be the first to

do so. Where Mars could be nearly

a year-long trip, the Moon is just a

few days away [12].

NASA has a budget of $22.75

billion for 2020. This is an increase

on previous years to account for the

Artemis program, with plans to land

the first woman and the next man

on the moon by 2024 [13].

However, despite this increase in

budget, it would make sense to

harness the benefits that these

private companies can offer. In this

case, competition may give way to


The agency's plans for reaching

the moon involve 'commercial and

international partners'. Including

private space companies in this

current moon bid offers up a way of

sharing costs. It looks like NASA

and these companies will work together

on future moon missions.

This will, in turn, provide an excellent

opportunity to test equipment

and technology that will eventually

take humans to Mars.

It seems that the way forward for

the space sector as a whole is for

the federal agencies like NASA and

ESA to work in collaboration with

the likes of Musk, Bezos and Branson.

The attention of governments

and their budgets are unfortunately

only a finite resource. By

working together, there is hope

that a sustainable lunar economy

can be created and maintained. It

has been argued by some that billionaires

and private companies

have no place in space exploration

due to its importance. However, it

cannot be disputed that these

three tycoons are increasing the

rate at which we progress.


Science in the Spotlight

It's July 2019, I'm sitting at my office

computer when my friend

rushes over to my desk. "Have you

seen the new Cats trailer?". He

grabs the mouse, opens a new tab,

and for 2 minutes and 48 seconds I

sit transfixed. An eternity passes.

The trailer finally ends and I'm left

speechless, staring at my screen.

What the hell did I just watch?

For those unfamiliar with Andrew

Lloyd Weber's back catalogue, the

source material for Cats is completely

bonkers, but these CGI cats

are taking it to the next level. The

trailer makes for uncomfortable

viewing; I've absolutely no desire to

watch the whole film. I'm reminded

of a disturbing movie I saw as a

child – The Polar Express (I still can't

bear to watch it). Maybe I've got a

low threshold but I find creepy CGI

deeply unsettling. I look at Twitter

and confirm I'm not the only one

who hates 'digital fur technology'.

Cats was freaking people out.

The CGI cats were repeatedly compared

to the stuff of nightmares.

Entertainment journalist Kristy

Puchko tweeted that the trailer

made her eyes bleed. People were

equal parts confused and horrified;

the producers' miscalculation was

spectacular. Don't get me wrong,

the animators achieved exactly

what they set out to do – they've

created convincing cat-human hybrids.

But perhaps these cats are a

little too convincing.

Producers should know by now

that people can find photorealism

disturbing. Let's return to The Polar

Express, the creepiest animated film

of the B.C. era (a.k.a. the period

'Before Cats'). Some of the worst

critic reviews focused on the "unnervingly

smooth" humans, calling

them "glaring impostors" and "as

blank-eyed and rubbery-looking as

moving mannequins -- the stuff of

nightmares, not dreams" [1]. The

nightmare comparison always

crops up. It's as if almost-realism

trips a switch in our brains; an

alarm goes off, alerting us that

something's not quite right. While

this is a relatively new issue for animators,

roboticists have been

grappling with this effect for


This phenomenon, coined the

'uncanny valley', was first described

by Japanese researcher Masahiro

Mori in 1970. Now, for those who

work with humanoid robots, it's

common knowledge that people

find designs creepy once they approach

a certain degree of anthropomorphism.

There's a balance to

be struck; we feel familiarity, even

empathy, for robots with faces [2] –

we find them cute (think of Pepper,

the customer service robot) – but if

the face is too human-like, we become

unsettled and distrustful. The

same rule applies in animation.

Empathy drops. That uneasy feeling


Science in the Spotlight

builds in the pit of your stomach.

Your brain is trying to tell you that

something's off (hint: it's Taylor

Swift's furry cat boobs).

While the uncanny valley can be

exploited for horror and sci-fi

movies, producers often stray into

uncanny territory by accident. It ruins

films – the effect creates discomfort

at inappropriate moments

and prevents audiences from connecting

with the characters [3]. The

phenomenon doesn't just apply to

human shape or facial features; unnatural

human motion, however

slight, accentuates the unsettling

effect (though it's probably not the

only reason that zombies were

deemed creepier than corpses in

Mori's study).

ing the colour to give them a greyish

complexion and creating a mismatch

between their head and body

proportions. Perhaps unsurprisingly,

the study participants liked these

least of all. I can't help but feel bad

for those volunteers.

Psychologists suspected that uncanny

valley is triggered when a human-like

object fails to meet our

expectations. We have an innate

sense of what constitutes 'normal'

human shape and motion. So if we

recognise an object as 'human' and,

on closer inspection, we realise that

its behaviour or movement is beyond

this scope, it could elicit a

sense of unease.

The fMRI scans showed that part

of the brain that decodes visual information

was tracking the pictures.

This wasn't that surprising, however,

they noticed the activity pattern

changed depending on how human

the object appeared. This created a

"spectrum of human-likeness" in the

participants' brains. The scans also

confirmed that our uneasy, uncanny

valley feeling is created by circuits in

the brain that evaluate social cues.

While I suspected that I find humanoid

robots – and Cats – more

repulsive than the average person,

this study was the first to show

In 2019, almost 50 years after

Mori's discovery, researchers based

in the UK and Germany may have

discovered the underlying uncanny

valley brain mechanism. Using an

imaging technique called fMRI

(which highlights active brain areas

by detecting changes in blood flow),

subjects were shown pictures of

various robots, humans, and 'artificial

humans'. The participants rated

their likeability and human-likeness,

while the researchers kept track of

their brain activity.

Side note: I assumed 'artificial

humans' was code for those realistic

sex robots (if they don't trigger

your uncanny valley, I don't know

what will). But the way that researchers

induced ultimate uncanny

valley is even weirder. The

'artificial humans' were created by

taking pictures of volunteers who've

had 'extreme' plastic surgery, edit-


Science in the Spotlight

definitively that people experience

uncanny valley to differing degrees.

The researchers asked participants

whether they would accept a gift

from the robot or 'artificial human' in

question. Those most likely to reject

gifts from the human-like objects

showed more activity in their amygdala

(a brain area associated with

emotional responses, including fear

and anxiety) [4].

by your personal experiences (so

maybe I've been scarred by The Polar

Express). Perhaps these animators

have spent so long with their

designs, they no longer see their

sinister side. After the Visual Effects

Society claimed animators were

scapegoated for the poor Cats reception,

stating that "The best visual

effects in the world will not compensate

for a story told badly", I suspect

this to be the case.

take the risk to be the first. Cats'

director actually waited for 'digital

fur technology' so he could bring

his vision to life. We're seeing rapid

advances in computer power and

graphics processing; true

photorealism is on the horizon. I

just hope animators will learn their

technical prowess cannot compensate

for the gut-wrenching,

skin-crawling sensation I get when

I see a furry Judi Dench wearing a

fur coat. Does anyone else get the

impression it's made from the skin

of other cats?

While some animators may enjoy

the challenge, it's possible that

those who favour photo-realism lack

the uncanny valley response. Your

brain's valuation system is shaped

Either way, I believe the temptation

to use new CGI technology is

just too strong for some producers,

despite peer-reviewed research –

and poor box office takings – showing

that audiences don't really want

it. There's always someone willing to


Science in the Spotlight

The antibiotic

resistance crisis:

Why researchers are going

back to the drawing board

There's an old adage that says 'it

takes two generations to forget'. This

is certainly true when it comes to infectious

diseases and remembering

a time before antibiotics. A diminishing

number of people are alive today

who experienced the penicillin therapeutic

revolution of the 1940s and

even fewer who witnessed the horrors

of infectious disease treatment

that came before.

The normalisation of successful infection

control has led to it not only

being taken for granted but expected.

A sort of desensitisation to the wonderful

therapeutic advancements

that are antibiotics. Advancements

that mean if you get a persistent

chest infection, you don't hunker

down in a sanatorium by the sea with

your last hope being to "take the sea

air". Instead, you can expect some

antibiotics from your GP and should

begin being relieved of your symptoms

within 48 hours.

It is clear that antibiotics are one

of the greatest success stories of

medical science. This is reflected in

their use at every level of the healthcare

setting from prescriptions in

primary care, to use prophylactically

in routine operations and intravenous

administration for medical emergencies

such as meningitis.

However, this broad use isn't

without its problems and has meant

antibiotics have become a victim of

their success. Ever since the introduction

of the first widely used antibiotic

penicillin, we

have been careless

with their administration


have adopted a

laissez-faire attitude towards antibiotic

consumption, safe in the assumption

that the next medical

science phenomenon is around the

corner to cushion our fall.

There are problems in paradise.

Antibiotic resistance arises from

'selection' of resistant bacterial

cells in a bacterial population. So, if

you administer an antibiotic at a

dose not high enough to kill the

population as a whole, those bacterial

cells with some resistance

are selected for; they survive and

thrive without competition. The

emergence of resistance was

something Alexander Fleming predicted

in his 1940 Nobel lecture,

warning that "there is the danger

that the ignorant man may easily

underdose himself and by exposing

his microbes to non-lethal quantities

of the drug make them resistant"


These resistant strains can then

pass on antibiotic survival information

in the form of a plasmid, which

allows other bacterial species to

become resistant and persist. For

example, in the case of Klebsiella

pneumoniae, its population can accumulate

these resistance plasmids

and act as a reservoir of

resistance; a sort of library for other

bacteria to acquire instructions

on how to survive clinically relevant

antibiotics. In recent decades, this

has led to the emergence of MDR

strains (multidrug-resistant), with

some presenting resistance to almost

all known antibiotics. In other

words, if you catch one of these,

there is little a doctor can do to treat

you and, alarmingly, the incidence of

these cases is increasing.

To make matters worse, pharmaceutical

companies have woken up

to the business plan screw up that is

antibiotic resistance. The average

cost of bringing a novel drug candidate

through clinical trials to bedside

is around $2.6 billion USD. Understandably,

recouping this in drugs

sales whilst the clinical environment

is riddled with resistance would

likely reduce profit margins on antibiotics

that become ineffective

quickly. As a result, pharmaceutical

companies have diverted research

and development efforts away from

antimicrobial drug discovery.

This becomes a two-pronged problem

in the clinic with no new classes

of antimicrobials entering the market

in the last 40 years and resistance

to the current drugs continuing

to gather pace. Therefore, there has

been a narrowing of treatment options

for some infections. The World


Science in the Spotlight

Health Organization has described

resistance as "one of the biggest

threats to global health" and it has

been predicted that antibiotic resistance

will kill 10 million people a year

by 2050 in a 'post-antibiotic era' [2].

With this sobering thought in

mind, what is being done to prevent

(or at least mitigate) an impending

antibiotic back out of the bacteria

and proteins involved in the entry of

antibiotics into the cell [3].

The most successful, widely used

class are β-lactamase inhibitors,

like clavulanic acid (which was introduced

in the 1980s and is still

used clinically today), in combination

with amoxicillin as Co-amoxantibiotics.

These warnings fell on

deaf ears from policymakers for

many decades so, until recently,

there hasn't been a concerted effort

from the government to tackle antibiotic

resistance. It has become

clear that scientists communicating

research and public health concerns

with potential voters directly is most


antibiotic resistance apocalypse?

Researchers have gone back to the

drawing board to investigate new

strategies; alternatives to just creating

more antibiotics that quickly become

obsolete and to search for that

light at the end of the tunnel.

One strategy comes in the form of

antibiotic adjuvant therapies. Adjuvants

are drugs that are administered

alongside antibiotics to

'block' resistance pathways. If administered

alone they are unable to

kill bacteria, but with antibiotics, they

act to enhance their effect. This

means that if an antibiotic becomes

ineffective due to a resistance mechanism,

an adjuvant returns it to being

able to kill bacteria.

Current adjuvant drug classes in

use include β-lactamase inhibitors,

efflux inhibitors and membrane permeabilisers.

In short, these target

the most common resistance mechanisms

to clinically relevant antibiotics;

enzymes produced to degrade

antibiotics, proteins that pump the

iclav. Due to selection of bacteria

that produce other β-lactamase enzymes,

a new class of β-lactamase

inhibitors are currently being

tested, with a drug called Relebactam

having entered phase

three trials in 2019 [4].

Another recent strategy involves

enhancing the innate immune system

against infection. The innate

immune system is your first line of

defence against infection, comprising

macrophages and neutrophils,

which engulf and hydrolyse

pathogens. A quick response here

circumvents the need for full-blown

immune system activation. Understanding

what factors are involved

with the interaction between host

immune cells and pathogens during

this process could allow drugs

to be designed that aid in enhancing

the effect of the immune system.

Fighting an infection can be a

tricky business particularly if you

are immunocompromised, so tipping

the scales in favour of host

immune cells could help

clear infections faster and

crucially, all without the

need for antibiotics. Although

there are no drug

candidates for this

strategy yet, it remains an

exciting topic of research

that could provide effective

therapies not affected by

antibiotic resistance mechanisms


The public is becoming increasingly

informed on antibiotic stewardship

with it being taught in schools

and covered in the general media.

Like anything in the public sphere,

this knowledge places pressure on

policymakers to change and encourages

people to vote accordingly. It

also pushes large corporations, like

pharmaceutical companies, to exercise

more social responsibility, and in

recent years, antibiotic resistance research

portfolios have seen an increase

in investment. As always,

researchers are producing innovative

ideas to tackle the science behind

resistance, but this is only part of the

solution. In the meantime, without a

continued multidisciplinary response,

it would be worth imagining what the

world was like without antibiotics. It

may just come back to bite.

Is it all too little too late?

As exemplified by Alexander

Fleming's Nobel Lecture in

1940, scientists have been

warning of resistance emergence

since the conception of



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