The Science Bit: Part 9 – The Human Genome Project – 10 years on

25 02 2011

The human genome projectIn 2001, the journals Science and Nature simultaneously published the results of a decade or more of groundbreaking scientific research – the Human Genome Project. But what is the Human Genome Project? Why was it done? And most importantly, what have we learnt from it?

Inside almost every one of our cells are chromosomes made up of DNA. DNA is a long, twisted molecule made up of units of 4 chemicals called adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine and (A, T, C and G respectively), plus some sugar and phosphate molecules to hold it all together. We’ve known for many years that small sections of DNA, called genes, provide the instructions to make different proteins, and proteins are important because they are involved in just about every chemical, mechanical and structural function in the body.

The primary aim of the Human Genome Project (HGP) was to “spell out” the sequences of As, Ts, Cs and Gs for every single human gene. It was hoped that if we can do this and discover what a “normal” gene looks like, then we would also discover the genetic mutations and abnormalities that cause human diseases. Not only that, but by mapping the location of each gene on each chromosome, we might be able to use targeted drug and gene therapy to treat or even cure some of these diseases.

The announcement, in February 2001, that the human genome had been sequenced was front page news. After years of trying, and $3 billion of funding, it had finally been done. Researchers heralded the beginning of a “golden age” for genomic research, and the media were in a frenzy speculating on all the terrible diseases that may now be cured, all the wonderful new drugs that might be developed. But then, after the hype, it all went quiet.

So what has the HGP achieved in the last 10 years? We still haven’t cured cancer, or AIDS, or Alzheimer’s, and stem cell therapy is still a rather experimental treatment for some diseases rather than the miracle cure-all we hoped it would be. Was the HGP a waste of time and money?

Of course the answer to this is “no”. Though, as a result of the HGP, medicine has not advanced as much as we might like in the last decade, our underlying understanding of genomics has made great leaps and bounds. As The Economist’s Science Editor Geoffrey Carr wrote recently, the race (between rival research teams Celera and the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium) to sequence the human genome “was not a race to the finish line, but a race to the starting line”.

So what have we learned from the HGP? Well, the very fact that the entire human genome – some 3 billion As, Ts, Cs and Gs long – could be sequenced and mapped is in itself a marvellous achievement for scientific research, and the sequencing process has been refined so that it is now much quicker, cheaper and more efficient. Despite humans being one of the most complex organisms on Earth, we’ve learned that the human genome is much smaller than we originally thought – we have around 22,000 genes, in comparison to the very recently-sequenced and very tiny water flea (Daphnia pulex), which has 31,000.

Though the head of pharmaceutical company Novartis once quipped that the HGP had yielded “data, data everywhere, and not a drug, I think”, we are now beginning to see advances in medicine too. While we have not yet witnessed a “revolution” in terms of “the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases”, as predicted by then-President Bill Clinton in June 2000, we have pinpointed the genetic defects that cause around 850 diseases and this is slowly but surely leading to advances in their treatment. Thanks to HGP research, several new drugs for cancer, osteoporosis and lupus are now beginning to enter the market after a decade of trials, and genetic screening is becoming more widely available for a greater range of diseases.

Despite the deficit in new discoveries that have been sensational enough to rouse the interest of the general public, the Human Genome Project and the ongoing research stemming from it, is still plugging away and helping to increase our overall understanding of genomics. If sequencing the human genome was a sprint to the start line, the race from here on is a marathon, but one that will ultimately impact greatly on biology, medicine and science as a whole.

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FAQ: Public and private messages on Freelancer.com – what are they for?

9 02 2011

OK, so I’m not *loving* Freelancer.com right now, and I won’t be fully au fait with them until they have implemented the compulsory milestone payment feature they promised me in response to my last post so that freelancers don’t have to take a gamble every time they bid on and accept a project. But I am OK with them again, so it’s time for another FAQ session. This week, I’m talking about the public and private message boards on Freelancer.com, and what they are for. And what they definitely are NOT for.

First of all, the public message boards. Each project description page, say for instance, this one, has a link to a “project clarification board” – that’s the proper name for the public message board, and it’s an important name. This message board is where you’re supposed to ask questions to clarify details about the project before you place a bid. In theory, the buyer is supposed to read the comments on this message board and answer any questions that potential bidders might have so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to bid, and if so, how much to bid. That’s it. That’s all this board is for.

Here’s what the clarification board (public message board) is NOT for:

  • Placing a bid. Bids MUST be placed via the proper bid form (the blue button on the other side of the page, where it says “Bid on this project”). If you place a bid on this message board, you’re breaking terms and conditions and could be suspended. Regular freelancer members have a finite number of bids that they can make per month, so this rule is to stop people who have spent their bids from trying to get an extra chance or ten (TIP: if you find yourself running out of bids each month, upgrade to Gold membership – you’ll get unlimited bids for a monthly fee). Also please note that there is a minimum bid amount of $30. You cannot bid lower than that, so bidding on the public message board is not a good way to get around this!
  • Uploading your samples. I actually don’t really know why there is the facility to upload files to the public message board – I don’t see any need for it and it can actually be damaging for freelancers to do so. People who post samples here should realise that because the board is public, ANYONE can access and download those files. ANYONE. Even people who are not registered Freelancer users. Even people who might collect samples and republish them elsewhere without your permission. Even (*gasp!*) buyers who might take your work without asking and not pay for it!
  • Uploading your CV (résumé). As above, remember that ANYONE can view files that are posted to the public message boards, so if your résumé contains your email address, your date or birth, your home address, etc etc, these all have the potential to be collected and abused by less scrupulous folk. This also breaks the next rule about…
  • Posting your contact details. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is against Freelancer’s rules to post your contact information ANYWHERE on the site, other than when you first register for an account. Contact information includes your email address, phone number, home address, instant messenger ID or any other way that someone might be able to contact you other than through the Freelancer site. It even includes not-so-cunningly disguised email addresses such as “name at domain dot com”. The reason? Freelancer have been clever enough and kind enough to provide the infrastructure for you to find work by hooking you up with employers. If you contact them outside of Freelancer, you dodge having to pay Freelancer’s commission fees if you win a project. Like it or not, Freelancer, as a business, are entitled to make money, just like you, so pay the darn commission fees and bid/accept bids properly! If you don’t, well then don’t be surprised if your account is suspended, much like the idiot featured in this Freelancer blog post.
  • Posting a project or advertising another website. I’ve seen this quite a lot lately. Buyers who don’t want to play by the rules or pay Freelancer’s fees, instead try advertising a project on the public message board. This not is not only a deliberate attempt to dodge fees, but these users usually have to leave a contact email address or IM ID to get people to respond, so that’s two counts of Freelancer felony! I’ve also seen people advertising their companies, their affiliate schemes or other freelance websites here. It’s not allowed!

Each project also has an associated private message board. This is ONLY available to people who have placed a bid using the designated bid form – you cannot send a private message to a buyer until you have placed a bid. On the bid form, right at the bottom, you will find a little check box that says “Also send a private message to the project seller”. Check this, and a message box will appear and you can tap out your message to the buyer. The message will only be sent when you confirm your bid. If you chose not to send a private message at the time of bidding, you can still do so later by accessing the project from your project table (Projects > My Projects). Thereafter, you can message the buyer in private to your heart’s content.

As with the public clarification board, you are NOT allowed to post your contact details on the private message board! The private message board is “private” in the sense that the message cannot be viewed by Freelancer users other than yourself and the buyer, but it does not mean that Freelancer staff cannot see it! If you post your contact details here, or try to bypass any other rules and regulations, Freelancer have access to all this information – they can and will use it as evidence to suspend your account, just like the guy in the Freelancer blog post I mentioned earlier.

By all means, if you trust the buyer, feel free to post your samples and your résumés on the private message board (but be careful to remove any contact information first) and continue to discuss the project. Remember that even if a buyer replies to your private message, even if they show interest in hiring you, hell even if they SAY they want to hire you – the project is not yours until you have received that all-important congratulations email from Freelancer.com asking you to accept or reject the project AND until you have actually accepted it!

As the saying goes, “to be forewarned is to be forearmed”. I’ve told you everything you need to know about the Freelancer message boards – now make sure you get it right!

 





A fundamental Freelancer.com flaw

4 02 2011

As regular readers of this blog will be well aware, I’m a fairly big fan of Freelancer.com. The site gets a lot of bad press and most people seem to find this blog after searching for the terms “Is Freelancer.com a scam?”. My answer to this is, and always has been “No”. The trouble with Freelancer, or rather the trouble with Freelancer users, is that they don’t read, understand and abide by the terms and conditions. Many people sign up for an account without having read what they are signing up for, and muddle their way along, thinking that this is the next get-rich-quick scheme.  Unsurprisingly for me, but apparently surprising to a lot of people, users who breach the terms -whether they realised it or not – quickly have their account(s) shut down. These people find their way here, or onto one of a number of complaints boards, and rant and rave about how unfair Freelancer.com is, when actually, it was their fault all along.

Surprising though it may be to regular readers of this blog, today I’m going to break with tradition and make my own complaint about Freelancer.com. I have found a chink in their armour; a situation where I find them to be completely accountable for the injustice that befell me today.

So the story goes like this. Yesterday afternoon, I spotted a project on Freelancer.com in which a chap requested editorial assistance with a document that appeared to be some kind of literary academic assignment. He’d posted the document to be edited online, so I could see that it was only very short, and placed a bid for $30. I specified in my bid proposal that I could copyedit the document and return it to him within 24 hours, and also requested a milestone payment of the full balance.

My bid was accepted – hurray! I clicked “accept” and received the official notification from Freelancer telling me that the project had begun. Having received the buyer’s email address, I immediately emailed the buyer, thanking him kindly for awarding the project to me, and requesting again (just in case he missed it in my bid) that he set up a milestone payment for $30.

Then nothing. OK, so it was late afternoon by then, perhaps the guy was busy.

When I sat down at my computer first thing this morning and checked my emails, there was still nothing from the buyer, so I logged into my Freelancer account and checked the project page. To my surprise, I saw that another freelancer was now the selected provider! How could this be?

Of course, my first instinct was to email the buyer, which I did, but I have still not heard from him. I guess he’s well and truly changed his mind, though the other provider he selected placed exactly the same bid and turnaround time, so I’m baffled by his indecision. Anyway, then, for the first time, I used Freelancer.com’s live help chat facility and spoke to a chap called Jeremy. He asked me for the project number and my Freelancer username, then went quiet for about 10 minutes while he checked my story. When he came back, he simply said, “The project was cancelled yesterday”. Well actually no, Helpful Jeremy, as you can see from the link to the project page I just gave you, the project is still open – you can see my bid there – but a different provider has been selected. How can this be?

Helpful Jeremy helpfully said, “I suggest you try contacting your buyer”. Yes Jeremy, I have done that, but he’s not going to refund me the $5 fee I paid to Freelancer now, is he?

Says Helpful Jeremy, “No. Please be aware that we do not refund commission fees. My best advice would be next time for you to request a milestone payment in advance”.

*Head -> Wall x 10*

But Helpful Jeremy, I DID REQUEST A MILESTONE PAYMENT. I specified this in my bid, and that bid was accepted. The buyer cannot physically set up a milestone payment until I have accepted the project, right?

“Yes”. I imagine if Helpful Jeremy had been speaking, not typing, he would have said this in a very quiet voice. Then, helpfully, “I understand your frustration Lisa, is there anything else I can help you with today?”

ARGH!!

I fail to see that I have done anything wrong in this situation, and as a result, I fail to see why I should forfeit the $5 fee for being a victim of the buyer’s indecision. The fundamental flaws in Freelancer’s system, as I see them, are as follows:

1) I was somehow “deselected” as the winning bidder, but was not informed by Freelancer.

While I was speedily informed by email that I was the winning bidder of the project, there was no email or notice from Freelancer to tell me that I had been “bumped” as the winning provider. Surely, when a buyer awards a project, and the freelancer accepts it, an agreement of sorts has taken place, and it should not be the case that the buyer can simply change their mind and select someone else at all, let alone without the deselected provider being notified. If I had been less careful and not looked at the project page this morning, I could have carried on with the editing work I believed I had been given to do, and been none the wiser. As well as losing my $5, I could have also wasted my valuable time on work that I didn’t have to do.

2) Freelancer does not refund project fees – even if the provider is bumped.

I get it. I get why Freelancer doesn’t usually refund project fees. They say that they are acting as an introduction agency between buyer and freelancer, and once they have done their job and connected the two, what happens next is up to the buyer and freelancer. This would be fine if work ensued, but in this case, the buyer backed out and chose someone else. Surely the buyer should pay the forfeit here, not the innocent freelancer?  What’s more, presumably the newly selected provider has now also paid a $5 fee, so Freelancer has earned an extra $5 here, at my expense, for doing absolutely nothing.

3) You cannot raise a dispute unless a milestone has been created, but what if a dispute arises before the milestone has been created as asked for?

In this case, if the buyer had set up a milestone and then changed his mind, I would be able to raise a dispute. The buyer would then be found to be clearly at fault, and I would be awarded the milestone payment. But, even though I requested one in the bid that he accepted, the buyer didn’t set up a milestone and I am left powerless (and $5 out of pocket).

Freelancer, to eliminate this loophole, I propose that if a provider has requested a milestone payment in their bid, it should be compulsory to set up that milestone at the time the buyer awards the project. Then, if the freelancer chooses to reject the project, the milestone can be returned to the buyer, and if the freelancer accepts the project, the milestone is created and held. If the buyer *then* decides to change their mind, the freelancer can raise a dispute. This seems to me to be a sensible and workable solution to a problem that discriminates against the powerless provider.





Losing your teeth linked to losing your mind

2 02 2011

A press release I recently wrote for BioMed Central’s open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions has again hit the newstands. I can’t find an online archive of the original release I wrote, but some lazy journos have reproduced it verbatim, so I definitely know it’s mine!

The release describes a study from the Nara Medical University in Japan whereby elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease were found to lose more teeth than those without the degenerative neurological disorder. Not only is this tooth loss associated with failing to remember to brush one’s teeth and a general poor state of hygiene, but gum disease may in fact accelerate dementia by affecting the sensory neurones in the gums, leading to the brain.

Read the original article in Behavioural and Brain Functions: Relationship of tooth loss to mild memory impairment and cognitive impairment: findings from the fujiwara-kyo study

Read some of the news articles using this press release:








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