Sunday, 10 September 2017

The Zika virus: an organism at the edge of life

Although now retired, the psychologist, Professor Emeritus Albert Mehrabian still works as a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is probably best known for his research into body language and non-verbal communication. His book ‘Silent Messages’ (first published in 1971) can still be found on Amazon, and is absolutely worth a read. Ironically for someone whose work is so well known and is still hugely influential, it is often misunderstood and misused.  In particular, it is the work arising from a 1967 experiment, which has come to be the most misused over time – most people will know the outcomes of this research as the ‘so called’ 55%, 38%, 7% rule in communication.

That is: 7% of meaning is in the actual words that are spoken, 38% of meaning is in the way those words are said and 55% of meaning is in the accompanying facial expression. If one stops and thinks about this for a moment it is obvious that this cannot be so!  If it were, wouldn’t we be able to understand 90% of what is said in a foreign language just by seeing the person talk, or understand most of what is said on TV with the sound turned off? Mehrabian has long been at pains to say that his work was only about the way feelings and attitudes are being communicated; outside of this specific use, the 55, 38, 7 equation doesn’t hold true!

I recalled Mehrabian’s work as I was thinking about the way some research outcomes become completely embedded into our collective thinking, even, when as in Mehrabian’s example, it is for the wrong reasons. Many researchers are to blame in this regard. Last week I had an interesting discussion with a colleague whose role at the University involves communicating research outcomes and tracking the impact of the research as it gets translated into practice. He had a constant battle with the words used by many academics in describing the research undertaken, methodology used and the results. His complaint was that often the language used is not accessible to non-academics and what was often missing was the answer to the ‘so what’ question – you have done the research, but what difference or benefit will it have for me?

It was a valid observation. However, most academics write for a specific audience. Sometimes this will be for peer reviewed journals where methodological, epistemological and scientific narratives are standard and expected, or they are writing for commissioners of research and will be required to conform to a widely accepted way of communicating information and ideas in order that the bid can stand being scrutinised and judged against other similar bids. Such conventions can, at times, result in information content that is impenetrable to all but a limited group of other academics, and/or the message becomes over simplified and misunderstood.

As always, a middle ground can be found. Last week I thought the on-line BBC News site did a good job reporting on the outcomes of research into the Zika virus. Zika is a virus that people get through being bitten by an infected mosquito. Most people have very few symptoms, but the disease poses a serious threat to babies in the womb. I guess most of us will have seen pictures of affected babies - their abnormally small heads are the outward sign of the disease. Zika-based infections have been linked to severe birth defects in almost 30 countries. Although not now seen as an international medical emergency, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is closely monitoring its spread.

The BBC story focused on new research published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine that reported the Zika virus can selectively infect and kill ‘hard-to-treat’ cancerous cells in adult brains. Whilst human trials are not likely for at least another 18 months, the laboratory-based research shows the potential of injecting the virus into the brain at the same time surgery is performed to remove brain tumours. There are many types of brain cancer, but the most common tumours are Glioblastomas. These account for 12-15% of all brain tumours and they are very difficult to treat. Glioblastoma is most common in adults aged 45-75, and affects more men than women.

The tumours are fast growing, spreading through the brain very quickly, making it difficult to see where the tumour ends and the healthy tissue begins. So surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy may not be enough to remove these invasive tumours. Glioblastoma stem cells continue to grow and divide, creating new tumour cells. It is healthy stem cells that the Zika virus attacks in babies, whereas adult brains have very few stem cells. This means in the case of adults, Zika treatment should only destroy the cancer-causing brain stem cells without causing damage to other healthy brain cells. 

When I first read the story, I wondered who had first thought of doing the research. The science is clear, the connections obvious when pointed out, but I suspect beyond most of us. So perhaps my colleague was right – we need to find greater opportunities to talk, listen and share ideas in order to grow our shared understanding of the possible. Its sounds like a great starting point for everyone in the research community! For me, as today is World Suicide Prevention Day, I hope there are lots of researchers working on how we reduce the numbers of those who want to end their lives in this way.