08 June 2009


Back when I was studying chemical engineering, my friends and I used to keep track of how many times a certain professor would say the word "basically" during a 50-minute lecture. I believe he topped out around 114 times. In doing the math, that's over two times a minute.

Basically, that's a lot, and it's basically very distracting.

But, basically, I digress.

The recent departmental newsletter I just received praises this professor for receiving a grant from the Gates Foundation to research vaccines.

Prestigious. Controversial.

The professor's work is titled, "Vaccinating Adjuvant Core Antigen Shell Nanoparticles," with the thrust of his research to "develop a simple, inexpensive way to engineer nanoparticles that boost the body's immune system by targeting dendritic cells in lymph nodes. Those cells play a key role in initiating responses to infectious diseases."

"Dendritic cells are like tiny UN Peacekeepers. They constantly check their surroundings for bad guys, like viruses and pathogenic bacteria. When they find them, they either ingest them or nibble out a piece of the offender and present pieces of the bad guys on their surface."

I was vaccinated as a child, but have concerns today, mostly about who controls these life-saving medicines and how safe they are. The idea that vaccines will harm a given percentage of the population, and that for the welfare of all, these souls are expendable, is a little callous for me.

I'm not saying this is the professor's mindset. I wish him success in his research. It's once these things get out in the corporate world that morality and altruism meet up against profit and expediency.

This article briefly touches on many of the issues.

But I can hear the complaints already. What if they actually make my kid sick? How dare you demand I give more medicine to my kids! Etc. etc. etc. (Oh, and this one is recommended for very small infants, starting as small as two months.)

To return to our favorite subject of this week, the retiring Mr. Gates, this fight may make the battles at Microsoft look like child’s play. The Gates Foundation is a big backer of the GAVI Alliance, which is working to extend the western standard of childhood immunization worldwide. The Gates Foundation is also a big backer of the search for new vaccines.

As we have seen with the HPV vaccine controversy, these arguments go far beyond science, into morality and politics, into emotion and issues of control. If we can prevent a dread disease in childhood, should we, even at some risk to all children? And who decides whether that risk will be taken? Bill Gates? If a vaccine is used universally a disease might disappear. But that may mean forcing people against their will, or the dictates of their religion, into doing something.

Their protection may keep a disease alive. Or it may prevent another outcome, such as autism.

This is what Bill Gates is stepping into, with his eyes wide open. Being called a Borg may be nothing next to being called Big Brother. No wonder he’s planning on spending one day a week back at the office. He needs the rest.


1 comment:

Ray from MN said...

Back in a much more sexist day, when I was in Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, I was in a small-ish class with a female professor who was married to a professor in the UofMN's Law School.

She was an excellent teacher and I really enjoyed and learned much in the class.

One of my classmates noted after a couple of weeks that Sheila wore a different outfit to class each day. So a chart was made.

We wondered why she didn't have any kids either and surmised that Sheila and Bart read text books to each other at night.

We were ready to give her an award at the send of the session, but she ran out of wardrobes and duplicated one the day of the final exam.