Thursday, June 17, 2010

Huff and puff away!

For years when giving talks about the problems in identifying genetic causation, in QandA time Ken has often been asked, "Well, if things like GWAS aren't really working, then tell us what to do instead!" It's spoken as a dare, but that's entirely off the mark. Just because someone explains that a given approach is not very effective and why does not mean they are obliged to suggest a new miracle theory or cure. In practice, science is part of society and won't--or can't--make major gear changes without a new path to funds, jobs, and so on.

Another statement made in frustration by audience members is, "I want a pill for lung cancer, so I can continue to smoke!". That's not only a dream, but a subtle reason why even genetics, if perfectly successful, will not solve the disease problem as promised.

But smokers, take heart! And you won't need to get your genes diagnosed by the carnival barkers at direct-to-consumer companies. In fact, you can smoke away with much less risk, almost enough to be worth it (if you smoke a tasty brand). "Nuts!" you say, knowing in your heart that smoking's a killer no matter what. But thanks to another public service study, we can say "That's right!".

Because the study says that consumption of B vitamins, and nutrients like, yes, nuts can cut your risk of lung cancer in half, even for smokers.

So why have we wasted so much research money, that taxpayers could have used to buy their smokes and peanuts? Because it's good for the science business? Because nobody had any reason to think that vit B could have anything to do with lung cancer? We don't know the answer, but in a technophilic society we think technology first and simple answers second. And we have to echo Tuesday's post, too: this study is probably at least as likely to be due to unobserved confounders than the vitamin itself.

Sadly, we have to close on a downer note. The majority, perhaps the vast majority, of smoking-related deaths are due to diseases other than lung cancer, not to mention quality-of-life effects like blindness and years of emphysema. So, put the pack away for a rainy day. But keep the nuts, because they could be good for you for other reasons--unless confounding erases the effect!

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