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Systems biology is all the rage, No surprise then, to see the University of Westminster advertising a job for a systems biologist in the The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences. Well, no surprise there -until you read the small print.

Much has been wriiten here about the University of Westminster, which remains the biggest provider of junk sciencne degrees in the UK, despite having closed two of them.

University of Westminster

Senior Lecturer in Systems Biology

University of Westminster – Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences, School of Life Sciences

Cavendish Site

Salary £37,886 – £50,751 (Inc. LWA)

The Department of Molecular and Applied Biosciences wishes to appoint a Senior Lecturer in Systems Biology. The post-holder will teach on the undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes within the School of Life Sciences, particularly in the areas of Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics and/or statistics, establish their own and participate in ongoing research programmes and undertake external income generation activities.

The candidate should have an active interest in bridging the gap between western life sciences and Chinese medicine using emerging systems biology approaches, specifically in metabolomics and proteomics with a goal of developing novel diagnostic technologies facilitating the creation of a personalised approach to medical care. They should therefore be willing to work closely with colleagues in the life sciences as well as with clinicians and clinical researchers from within the East Asian medical tradition.

The post is available from 1st October 2010 or as soon as possible thereafter.

The closing date for applications, together with a short statement on why you believe you are suitable for the position and a description of your research plans, is Monday 6th September 2010. Interviews are expected to be held later in September.

Administrative contact (for queries only): Tayjal Tailor (t.tailor1@wmin.ac.uk)

Reference Number:   50000360

Closing Date:   Friday 3 September 2010 

A note about systems biology

Systems biology is about about how whole organs behave, as opposed to single cells or single molecules, It has to be the ultimate aim of biology. There is one case in which this has been done with some success, That is the modelling of the behaviour of the whole heart by Denis Noble and his colleagues in the Phyiology department (now gone) in Oxford. They adopted a bottom up approach. They measured the currents that flow though many sorts of ion channels in single cells from various parts of the heart, and how individual cells communicate with each other. Starting from this solid basis, together with a lot of computer power, they were able to model successfully a lot of phenomena that occur in the whole heart, but can’t be investigated in single cells. For example their work cast light on abnormal heart rhythms like ventricular fibrillation, and on the effect of drugs on heart rhythm.

This work was mostly done before the term ‘systems biology" thought of. It was called physiology. It is impressive work, and systems biology became a fashionable buzzword among research administrators and funding agencies. Despite the amount of money thrown at the problem, I’m not aware of any success that remotely approaches Noble’s.. One reason for that is that people have not been willing to put in the groundwork. In the case of the heart, the models were built on -many years of basic research on the electrophysiology of single heart cells. People have tried to model from the top down, without doing the spade work first. There has developed a perception that computing power can compensate for lack of basic knowledge about things work. It can’t. The usual aphorism applies: garbage in, garbage out.

Here’s an example, which eas noted in the diary pages for 29 June, 2008.  While in Edinbuurgh, to give a talk to the European Conference on Mathematical and Theoretical Biology, I noticed a poster.   It described an attempt to model on a computer the entire metabolic network of yeast.

“81 of the 662 intracellular concentrations were defined . . . The remainder were set to the median concentration of c. 0.2 mM.”

Ahem.  We didn’t know the concentrations so we just made them up so we could run the program.

It’s interesting that even people in the business seem to realise that even that it isn’t living up to the hype. The Fixing proteomics web site shows why.

Put another way, if you try to run before you can walk, you risk falling falling on your face.

For these reasons, it seems to me that that most attempts at system biology have been disappointing (please correct me if I’m wrong)

Systems biology for Chinese medicine

If systems biology suffers from trying to run before it can walk in regular biology, where at least something is known about the functions of cells, how much more true that must be of Chinese medicine. In Chinese medicine almost all the treatments have never been tested properly in man. The odds are that most don’t work at all, and some are very poisonous (not to mention the cruelty and destruction of endangered species that is involved in making some of their more bizarre medicines). The idea that you can explain it with systems biology, is ludicrous in the extreme.

One can’t imagine any vaguely competent biologist who’d want to touch a project as bizarre as this with a bargepole.

Eastmedicine

This advertisement stems presumably from EASTmedicine is the University of Westminster’s research centre for East Asian Sciences and Traditions in Medicine. The proclaimed aims are to focus on “understanding, development and evaluation of East Asian medicines as living traditions”. The director of EASTmedicine, Volker Scheid, is a herbalist and acupuncturist and, as such, a firm believer in alternative medicine. When he isn’t at the University he has a private practice, the Traditional Acupuncture Centre, in London.

The website of his private practice makes some astonishing claims

"Acupuncture is effective in the treatment of numerous conditions including headache, migraine, digestive problems, menstrual disorders, indeterminate aches and pains, asthma, hayfever, stress, tiredness, depression and anxiety. Also commonly treated are chronic conditions such as arthritis, back pain, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, sinusitis, high blood pressure and repetitive strain injuries."

These claims simply cannot be justified by any worthwhile evidence. It will be interesting to see what Trading Standards make of them.

Dr Scheid describes himself as a "scholar physician". Physician seems a rather pretentious description for someone whose qualifications are stated to be PhD, MBAcC, FRCHM. But in similar vein he describes himself thus "I am one of the West’s leading experts on Chinese medical formulas and treatment strategies".

Although Scheid sells acupuncture treatments to patients, he seems ro be more anthropologist than medical. In a discussion of two acupuncture papers

"From the Perspective of the Anthropologist –
Volker Scheid, London, UK
From a perspective anchored in the cultural studies of science, technology and medicine my main interest in these papers is their status as cultural artifacts that provide access to the lifeworlds of a particular research community. If any, life-world debate and argument marks sites of contestation."  Forsch Komplementärmed 2007;14:371–375

Scheid shows not the slightest interest in whether acupuncture works other than as a placebo. Since he is selling acupuncture, he presumably starts from the premise that it works.

Volker Scheid has had a £205,000 Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine Project Grant: 2009 2012; Treating the Liver: Towards a Transnational History of East Asian Medicine; There’s nothing wrong with writing the history of long-outdated systems of medicine, though one could hardly imagine that the history would be very impartial, when it is written by a true believer. Another taste of his style can be found in his paper on Globalising Chinese Medical Understandings of Menopause. There is lots of rather pretentious stuff about culture, but very little about what actually works, Towards the end of the paper we come to the usual feeble excuse.

" . . once traditional medicines allow themselves to be evaluated by biomedical research methods, the odds against receiving fair treatment are heavily stacked against them."

The translation of that into plain English is something like ‘when we test our treatments properly we find they don’t work, so we blame the methods and carry on with selling them anyway’.

Judging from its web site, EASTmedicine does not to do any serious clinical trials to test whether the treaments work in man, They just know that they do. But they are hoping to add some spurious scientific background to their dubious claims by hiring someone to do compuations that will cast no light whatsoever on the question that really matters, Do they work or not?

The agenda is made clear by the statement

EASTmedicine seeks to describe and analyse the dynamics of these transformations with a specific view of managing their integration into contemporary health care.

So it is just yet another group of people pushing to have unproven and disproved treatments accepted by real medicine.

The University of Westminster appears to be determined to make itself the laughing stock by persisting in promoting junk science at a time when most other universities have realise that the harm done to their reputations is not worth the income it generates, Plenty of it has been revealed here.

The vice-chancellor of Westminster, Prof Geoffrey Petts, made into the pages of Private Eye (see Crystal balls. Professor Petts in Private Eye when he announced that he wouldn’t get rid of the junk, but would make it more ‘scientific’. Well, credit where it’s due, They have dropped homeopathy. see The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University For 2010 they still off ten different “BSc (Hons)” degrees in pre-scientific forms of medicine. It will take more than a bit od talk about systems biology to make anyone believe that these courses have anything to do with science.

For example, look at some slides from their lectures on “energy medicine”, Westminster University BSc: “amethysts emit high yin energy”

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time it’s Naturopathy , or

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

The Dean of the School of the Life Sciences, Jane Lewis, is an entirely respectable marine biologist.  She has had the thankless task of merging the real science with the alternative medicine in a single school. I phoned her to get a reaction

" outcome of merger of the school and trying to bring various parts of the school together"  " "things are much more rigorous than they were". 

DC: "Why don’t you just phase it out?" 

"I’m not in a poition to do that.  i move things forward as seems best -for the whole school I have to say".  We’re retaining those bits thatI think have some good standing -I see NICE has approved the use of acupuncture for lower back pain and some other bits and pieces so I see acupuncture as something that does have some standing, andwe make sure it rigorously taught"

"DCHave you looked at the stuff on naturopathy?" "Are amethysts emit high Yin energy still taught?"  " i don’t think so".

It seems, as so often in this case, that the senior people don’t really know what’s being taught under their noses. Prof
Lewis says she has not read about the background
to the (unusually) daft advice from NICE
. Neither has she read Barker Bausell’s book on acupuncture research. If she had done any of these things,I suspect she would not have such a high opinion of it as appears to be the case.

Bait and switch.  Astonishingly there is a now a whole organisation devoted to the respectabalisation of Traditional Chinese Medicine   Good Practice in Traditional Chinese Medicine Research in the Post-genomic Era   It sounds nice and sciencey but, as usual, they are trying to run before they can walk.  The first thing has to be to do good clinical trials to find out if there is anything there to be investigated.  If, and only if, this is the case, would there be any case for fancy talk about "proteomics"
and "the post-genomic era".

I do hope that no funding agency would be fooled into parting with money on the basis of the present vacuous rhetoric.

Professor Lewis said that I have I have quoted things like "amethysts emit high Yin energy" out of context. There is a simple solution to that. I have asked Westminster to make available the entire contents of the courses. Then we shall all be able to see the context of what their sudents are being taught.

Follow up

A brief report of this matter has appeared in Times Higher Education. In a statement, the University of Westminster says “its research into Chinese medicine is following the lead of “top research institutions”. I’m not aware of anyhting quite like this from anywhere else. In any case, Westminster should be able to think for themselves.

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