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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Humans of New York isn’t journalism, but it helps us get beyond the headlines

The creator fo the street photography projecthas turned his attention to the human stories behind the migrant crisis. 

More than 59 million people around the world are currently displaced as a result of conflict and crisis. More than 500,000 of these refugees – the majority of them escaping the deadly civil war in Syria – have fled to Europe over the past several months. These are staggering numbers, and as with any large-scale human crisis, one key challenge is to comprehend the human suffering behind them.

Over the past two weeks, New York photographer Brandon Stanton – best known for his project Humans of New York (HONY) – has documented the human stories behind the migrant crisis, in partnership with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Through HONY, Stanton has catalogued the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, using photographs and short interviews with his subjects. The project is hugely popular across social media, including Facebook (15.5m likes), Instagram (3.9m followers) and Twitter (356,000 followers), and his book documenting the project became a New York Times bestseller. On September 29, he announced that he would be sharing stories from refugees who are making their way across Europe. He said:

These migrants are part of one of the largest population movements in modern history. But their stories are composed of unique and singular tragedies. In the midst of the current ‘migrant crisis’, there are millions of different reasons for leaving home. And there are millions of different hardships that refugees face as they search for a new home.

Since then, the site has shared the stories of government clerks from Baghdad, Nepalese engineers, Afghani interpreters and Syrian waiters who left everything behind and embarked on treacherous and sometimes deadly journeys to reach safety. But the question remains: how much can readers learn about a complex, global, political issue like mass migration from a handful of stories about individual people?

Pulling on the heartstrings

The project quite deliberately tugs on the heartstrings of its audiences in its attempt to generate empathy for the refugees. One typical post, featuring a photograph of a crying woman, tells the story of how she lost her husband at sea after their boat capsized: “The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me.”

Another post, featuring a photograph of a father and his daughter, is particularly touching:

Because of its distinctive style and approach, the site has not been immune to ridicule and criticism. Countless parody accounts have sprung up. These include Millennials of New York, which attempts to offer stories that are “a little less inspirational”; Felines of New York, Lizard People of New York, Pigeons of Boston and Goats of Bangladesh – to mention just a few.

But HONY also has more serious critics to reckon with. Some suggest that Stanton's stories are mere caricatures, which oversimplify and sentimentalise what are often very complex stories, and seek to emotionally manipulate audiences through clickbaiting. Debates rage over whether it can be seen as a form of journalism and, if not, how we should understand the project.

Critics may be right that Humans of New York is not journalism as we know it. After all, it shies away from claims to objectivity and is explicit about its moral aim to humanise the headlines; to dig beneath the numbers and reveal the human stories that might make audiences empathise with the suffering of distant others. The project takes place in partnership with the UN, and therefore more appropriately belongs safely in the category of humanitarian advocacy through storytelling.

Time-honoured traditions

Yet HONY borrows from long-standing journalistic and documentary practices. For example, the British social documentary movement, which started in the 1930s, was premised on the importance of telling the stories of “ordinary” people to counter the dominance of elite and upper-class in the media.

My own research on the role of emotion in journalistic story-telling demonstrates that the most highly regarded journalism – Pulitzer Prize winning reports – draw extensively on emotive and personal story-telling as a means of illustrating what are often very complex and abstract issues, ranging from the fate of the New Jersey fishing industry to breakthroughs in the use of DNA technology for medical treatments.

This is precisely because it is only through such personal stories that we can step into the shoes of others – whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Humans of New York may be sentimental, simplistic and saccharine to some, but it also represents a major achievement. Using time-honoured journalistic techniques, it has shown its audience that the personal and private stories of refugees represent a shared political reality, which we ignore at our peril.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor; Director of Research Development and Environment, School of Journalism, Cardiff University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.