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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.