Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Banana Lectin, Anti-HIV Effects, & the Way We Interpret Science

I want to start this post by disclosing that I am very good friends with the lead author of this paper, soon to be Dr. Michael D. Swanson.

The title of the article "A lectin isolated from bananas is a potent inhibitor of HIV replication" (a superb title I might add) has caused quite a stir around many a news room.

University of Michigan Health System News Room
Ann Arbor.com
Science Daily
Fox News
Chicago Now

Among others, I also had the fortune of hearing it on the BBC World News podcast and it was mentioned that it was recently mentioned in Esquire.

All this publicity was great, but it shortly led to things like this letter to write-in Dr. Frascino. I won't reprint the whole letter, the question being the most interesting part.

Q: Doctor Bob what do you think about using squeeze banana as lubricant since scientist found something that can kill hiv in banana, in short rubbing banana on condom to reduce risk in case of breakage.

Amazing. I can't even begin to imagine what percentage of people hearing about this news story have already tried this. I think this situation exemplifies what happens often to scientists (an especially good cinematic example is Real Genius). We try to understand something, create something, or "fix" something and unfortunately there are always groups of people that misinterpret the results, or even worse, take advantage of those who misinterpret the results.

A prime example of that is occurring with the above study. BanLec Plus (an apparent BanLec oral capsule) is being sold by an anonymous company. If you read the website disclaimers carefully you get the idea that something shady is occuring. I highly doubt this is actually BanLec, and more likely it is a sugar pill. Also, oral BanLec? that doesn't even make sense. How is the protein going to be processed and active upon digestion? What is the mode of action? Obviously none of these tests have been done yet, so this leads me to believe this is a complete hoax. I cringe to think how many people have paid money for this thinking it will prevent them from contracting HIV.

I will never forget a conversation that me and Mike had late one night (probably taking a study break) because it is exactly how I feel, and how I hope most scientists and physicians feel. He mentioned how he hated watching TV and seeing the anti-HIV campaign commercials (my personal favorite seen here (SFWish)) because it made him feel like he wasn't doing enough and should be in the lab. I often feel the same way. But when something like this happens where your research gets twisted and used for nefarious purposes, it can be really disheartening.

"There are no facts, only interpretations" - Nietzsche
One last note. A link to 10 useful inventions that went bad, a scientist's worst nightmare.

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology & Immunology, and is a Public Health Laboratorian.

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