NOT A FAIR FIGHT
‘Viruses Don’t Play By Our Rules,’ Says MacPhail

At NLM, Dr. Theresa MacPhail lectures on viral outbreaks.
At NLM, Dr. Theresa MacPhail lectures on viral outbreaks.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or so the saying goes. So what can past worldwide pandemics teach us about future deadly outbreaks and the systems we’ve developed to combat them? Dr. Theresa MacPhail, a medical anthropologist who lived in China just after a deadly virus struck there, visited NIH recently to share her insights into the “Evolution of Viral Networks: H1N1, Ebola and Zika.”

“Outbreaks are about more than just biology and epidemiology,” she said. “Our responses to outbreaks are conditioned by what we know about past outbreaks. They rely upon institutions and structures put in place as a result of prior outbreaks and are often as much about politics and economic constraints as they are about science.”

MacPhail moved to Hong Kong in 2003, just as 37 countries around the world were recovering from severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which originally broke out in south China and killed nearly 800 people. Before the pandemic was contained, more than 8,000 cases had been reported globally. Two years later, when bird flu erupted, “the government’s response was swift and unforgiving,” MacPhail said. “SARS was a dramatic event in China and colored the public health response to everything that followed it.”

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Kaelin Advocates Robust Approach to Cancer Research

Dr. William Kaelin, Jr.
Dr. William Kaelin, Jr.

Dr. William Kaelin, Jr. has a message for young investigators entering medical research: “The most dangerous result in science is the one you were hoping for, because you declare victory and get lazy.”

For example, some investigators rush to link their favorite gene to a prognosis so as to proclaim clinical relevance, said Kaelin, a clinician who is a Harvard Medical School professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He tells his students to do better: think logically, speak clearly with words that have precise meanings and don’t assume correlation together with plausibility proves causation.

“You have to be careful with inferring causality,” said Kaelin, speaking at a recent Wednesday Afternoon Lecture in Masur Auditorium. “Showing that a protein is associated with a bad prognosis in a given cancer is not sufficient to claim it is a good cancer target.”

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