Your body’s superpowers

The remarkable abilities already inside us.

Norovirus might have laid you low for a short while, but you’re recovering, aren’t you? Your immune system is to die for. Researchers are still getting to grips with how it works but at every turn it has thrown out marvellous surprises. In the early days of vaccination against tuberculosis, for example, it was noted that it protected you not only from TB, but a host of other diseases, too.

We still don’t know why; it’s clear that we have yet to understand the full power of the human immune system. Just in December, for instance, we learned that the system’s T-cells, which fight viruses and bacteria, are not all created equal. Almost all of our knowledge of human T-cells has come from blood samples. But research using T-cells harvested from the organs of New York cadavers has shown that each region of the body has its own particular way of fighting invaders. Columbia University’s Donna Farber, who led the study, believes this discovery may open up the path to tightly focused vaccines that can activate the most appropriate of the body’s immune responses.

Her optimism is supported by another surprise the immune system has just delivered. New Scientist reported this month that there is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an incurable condition that blinds millions of people around the world.

AMD comes from the build-up of proteins and other debris on the retina. In healthy people this is cleared away by specialist cells. Those cells stop working in people with AMD. This appears to have two consequences: the build-up of debris continues and the light-sensitive cells of the retina beneath the debris start to die off. The result is a slowly widening black hole at the centre of your field of vision.

Pioneering treatments with a laser can stimulate the nonfunctioning cells to get them going again, which is exactly what Robyn Guymer of the University of Melbourne was trying to do in his trial on 50 patients. The idea was to try the laser treatment in one eye and leave the other eye as a control. Then tests on each eye would show what improvements the procedure could give.

So, you could imagine it was a little frustrating that in the tests the lasered eye didn’t seem to be that much better than the one that had been left alone. But Guymer soon realised this was because the vision of the untreated eye had also improved. The laser surgery had stimulated the patients’ immune system to respond to alarm calls from the eye.

Your eyes are usually offlimits to your immune system. It seems a sensible evolutionary trick, because the immune system’s standard response causes inflammation, which could be catastrophic in an instrument as sensitive as the eye. However, the cells destroyed by the laser appear to send out a signal so loud that the immune system overrides the safety mechanism and sends in the troops – to both eyes – to restore order.

There is now hope that AMD can be treated with a routine procedure at a very early stage, and that those most at risk of developing it can have their immune systems stimulated before the symptoms appear. But there is a wider lesson: with various successes in vaccines against cancer – particularly colon cancer – looking likely in the next few years, it’s becoming clear that the most profitable path for medicine might be to explore partnerships with the remarkable abilities that already lie within us.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

There is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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“WhatsApp isn't for parents”: how we contact all the different people in our lives

I wanted to find out how our digital hierarchies operate, so I asked people how they communicate with their family, friends, and colleagues. 

Recently, my family made an important decision. Too many conversations had petered out and decisions had been deferred because text messages had been going astray. Someone would end up calling someone else to talk for half an hour about how frustrating it was that they hadn’t replied to a question from three days ago, when all that was really required was a simple “Yes, see you there on Saturday”.

So, we became a WhatsApp-only family. It makes sense – we live on two different continents and travel quite a bit, and using the internet rather than cell service for sending text and pictures has already proved a lot more reliable. Still, though, when I need to tell my mum something and go to open the app, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t right. As far as I’m concerned, WhatsApp isn’t for parents; it’s for flatmates and groups of friends roughly the same age as me. It isn’t for your grandfather to pass on news of his latest Scrabble triumph.

This got me thinking – what is it about different methods of communication that make them feel appropriate to some people in our lives and not others? Why do I feel like text messages are inherently more “mum”, whereas Twitter DMs are really only for colleagues and creepy strangers? And does everyone have the same sense as I do? I’m a woman living in London in her late twenties and I work in the media: how does the hierarchy of digital communication methods look from other perspectives?

I designed a survey to try and find out. I asked respondents to select the means they use to communicate with people who occupy different roles in their lives, as well as for some basic personal information like where they live and how old they are.

I had hundreds of responses, from people of all ages and from all over the world (feedback came from places as far flung as Auckland, Puerto Rico and Kolkata). I think inevitably since I was promoting the survey via my own networks the respondents skewed to my own age group – 43 per cent were in the 22-30 bracket, but the second largest was 31-40 and the third was 51-60.

Nearly half of all respondents said that they would communicate with their mum and/or dad via phone call, while 47 per cent picked text message for siblings. The older the respondent, the more likely they were to pick phone call as the means of parental communication. Interestingly, for mums text messages came in a strong second (32 per cent), while with dads email and text tied on 24.7 per cent. The same goes for extended family – 44 per cent said they would call – but email came second on 35 per cent.

Facebook is the preferred means of communication for schoolfriends, at 52 per cent – something that was consistent across all age groups – whereas what I called “friends you’ve made as an adult” are mostly contacted via text message (56 per cent) or email (41 per cent). But there were some important distinctions made in the notes. One person commented: “When I have selected Facebook, I mean Facebook Messenger as a separate app on my phone and tablet rather than writing on their walls,” suggesting that there’s even greater nuance to how people are using the social network to stay in touch.

I’m unusual in using Twitter as a means of talking to colleagues, apparently: email came in at a whopping 70 per cent, followed distantly by text and phone call. Flat/housemates was a less conclusive spread, with 24 per cent using text messages, and 14 per cent apiece using WhatsApp and Facebook. Other messaging apps and systems that got frequently flagged for communicating with friends include: Telegram, Viber, Line, Instagram, Google Hangouts, iMessage and Skype chat. Interestingly, one person noted that “I haven't had a text from a person for months, now just a marketing channel for me”.

The majority of people still regard email as the most “official” means of digital communication, with twice as many people saying they would use it for their landlord as opposed to picking up the phone. And for the category I called “official, eg job application or complaint”, 92 per cent of respondents said they would use email.

Of course, there were lots of interactions that the survey couldn’t pick up – there were lots of comments of the kind that “I live with my mum and my partner, so it's mainly face to face”. What emerged as I was going through the data was that I am by no means alone in feeling that some methods of communication are more “appropriate” to people occupying particular roles in my life, but that we don’t agree on who goes with what.

There are myriad factors involved: when we first started using various apps and technologies; the age and tech literacy of both the person sending the message and the person receiving it; how we feel about privacy and security online; and much more besides. As technology has advanced, our means of communication have fragmented, and we’ve all gone in different directions. Somehow, it works.

That is, until my grandfather learns to use Snapchat – then all bets are off.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.