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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cancer cure - is it staring us in the face

Modern medicine is incredible. The pharmaceutical industry screens compounds at great expense to find ones that helps in the fight against various diseases; general practitioners skilled in diagnosis are able to send you to a specialist to cure your problem; less and less invasive ways are being found of doing what used to be major surgery; better and better understanding of epidemiology is leading to more effective preventive measures and so forth. My life has been saved at least twice and possibly three times and my quality of life has been greatly improved by modern medicine. With all its success, though, one mustn't loose site of its limitations. Just one example to illustrate the point.

There has long been a medicine in the Chinese pharmacology which will cure what we in the west, call Incurable Malaria. It is based on one of the worm woods, Artemisia annua and the active ingredient is artemisinin. Obviously the drug companies quickly did the research on this material, worked out how to synthesize it and presented it to the world to help in the fight against malaria. After all, its use for thousands of years in China made it a prime candidate for screening. You wish!!!!

 Not a bit of it! Unfortunately, since it is so well known, and by a civilized people and not by some remote Amazon tribe , it was not patentable. Not being patentable, the pharmacology companies couldn't make the big bucks from it. Sure they could have sold it in large quantities but there was nothing to stop another company from also making it and undercutting their price.

So how come we have this medicine available now in western medicine. Well a very altruistic chap came along with sufficient money to go through the very expensive process of developing, testing, characterizing, synthesizing and so forth and getting it through the various hoops set by the government. His name is Bill Gates. That's right. The same Bill Gates whose programs you are probably using right now to look at this message. In case you think I am mad, calling him altruistic, of course in his own field of software, he isn't. He is responsible for the welfare of his employees, his company and his shareholders. However, with respect to this and other medical problems his people are working on, he was and is very altruistic.

And here is the rub. For the above, very understandable reasons, companies often behave in the most appalling ways. I give you, for instance, Myra Brockovitch and hexavalent Chromium (yes it was a true story), I give you Ralph Nadir and Unsafe at Any Speed, I give you Enron and all her accounting firms. And how about cigarettes and the Marlborough Man assuring you that if you smoke, it will make you into a rugged outdoor he-man that always gets the girl. The list goes on and on. In case you think Parmacutical Companies are any different, I beg to differ. Their prime responsibility is to their company, their investors and themselves and I have long since ceased to be surprised or disappointed by anything companies do.

Lets be honest. To a large extent, they have 'done good' (and in doing so, done very well thank you kindly). They, under capitalism, certainly have done far better than that very humane sounding philosophy "from each according to his ability - to each according to his need". Do you recognize the quote. Carl Marx on Communism. Look at the barbarism that that philosophy spawned. However, as superior as Capitalism is to the alternatives, we must not be blind to its shortfalls and one shortfall is the way a medicine or medical treatment can fall between the cracks because there is little profit in developing it.

I'm talking here about cancer cures but the same applies to all sorts of treatments. My own favorite candidate for a cancer cure is Coley's toxins. You can Google it and see how convincing the story is. It is, of course, quite possible that it is all nonsense, that Coleys Toxins have no curative properties at all for cancer despite the very convincing "back story". Fortunately, though, we have the scientific method including the double blind test, to examine this or any other potential cure so we don't have to take it on faith. We can test its efficacy.

So we go to the head of a medical research institute. One with a chief executive who himself is convinced that the cure in question has enough evidence built up to be worthy of testing. Perhaps we find a medical school head whose wife or child is dying from cancer and who is desperate to find a cure. He jumps at the chance to test out this cure, right?

Not on your Nelly he doesn't. If Coley's cure , is effective the medicine to treat a patient will give you a lot of change from $10. (You will have to pay for a hospital stay or home stay of a few weeks at whatever that costs but the medicine itself is cheap). If Coley's cure is actually effective, in a stroke it would wipe out the market for a wide range of very profitable existing cancer medicines. That same medical research facility we approached to test Coley's toxins, is already getting most of its operating budget from the pharmaceutical companies. Wouldn't you like to be a fly on the wall when the rep from the Pharm company has a one-on-one with the head of the medical facility following the news release that they were contemplating testing a cheap alternative cancer cure. Remember that a successful outcome would wipe out most of the revenue from the cancer treatments division of the Pharm company. So how do we plug this hole in what otherwise is a pretty successful system.

What we need is some mechanism, some institution, which is big enough and prestigious enough to develop and test cures such as artimisinin or Coley's Toxins without depending on a rich, altruistic benefactor to do the job. It would probably have to be government financed and constant vigilance would have to be exercised to keep Big Pharm from getting their sticky fingers on it or otherwise subverting it. Not an easy task. The same institute could also randomly test some of the products coming out of Big Pharm. Thalidomide comes to mind but there are many others. When you consider the power of lobbying groups, getting such an institute up and running would be fraught with difficulties but it would be highly worthwhile.

Of equal importance, such an institution would lay to rest a whole range of "snake oil" cures that are causing much misery to people who think they will work. Homeopathic medicines would be a good place to start.  Disproving the various snake oils would have as beneficial effect on our health system as the discovery of cures that are at present falling between the cracks.

We mustn't blame the Pharmacutical companies for their behavior. They are primarily businesses and not charities. They have their responsibilities which don't always coincide with the public good. We shouldn't be blind, however, to their limitations and should set up mechanisms to overcome these limitations.  At heart, the major loyalty of any BigPharm company is to itself.

Post Script (Dec, 2011)
I received a link with a raft of hard information and links from a professional in the field.  It gives chapter and verse on the work of Dr. Coley and subsequent investigators.  Click on:::

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Tracking Solar Water Heater

I saw this in Mechanics Illustrated or Popular Science about 30 years ago. I have long forgotten the name of the inventors but I think they were a couple of Australians. It so impressed me that I still remember it. It was a tracking solar water heater. You might ask why bother. A flat panel makes lots of hot water so why go to all the trouble. Well, to start with it is "cool". What tecno junkie wouldn't rather take 5 minutes to open a can with an electrical can opener instead of opening it in 30 seconds with a hand opener. Besides, it can provide a lot more heat from a given day than a panel collector. You also get to fiddle around with it and tweak the operation while a flat panel just sits there and heats water.

Where I live on the South Island of New Zealand, in the summer the sun comes up almost 30 degrees south of our line of latitude so our north facing roof with its solar panel doesn't get the sun until about 8:30AM. The same applies in the evening. We lose around 4 hours of potential water heating each day. Even when the sun does start to illuminate the panels, it is at a pretty oblique angle so it is not very effective for another hour or so. The tracking system I remember uses a parabolic trough to focus the sun on a heat-pipe* located at its focus. As all you thermodynamic adepts will know, you can get more energy out of a heat engine with a greater delta T, even though you have only the same input of energy. So how does it work. This is going to be hard without pictures but I'll do my best.

*Note - the heat pipe in the link talks about a wick on the inner lining of the heat pipe.  When heat is being transferred from 'down' to 'up', a wick is not needed.  The working fluid simply trickles back down the tube.

The first part of the system is a heat pipe. For any of you who haven't come across these amazing devices, a heat pipe is a pipe (as you would expect) which is sealed at both ends and has some working fluid in it. All the air is excluded, often by the simple expedient of sealing the bottom end, boiling the fluid until all the air is pushed out and then sealing the top end. The amount of working fluid used must be carefully regulated so that if all the fluid is in the gas phase, the pressure is comfortably under the bursting pressure of the pipe. Once you have done the necessary calculation you can check your heat pipe by weighing it before and after introducing the working fluid.  The heat pipe is located at the focus of the parabolic trough mirror and the mirror and its pipe is set at the correct angle for the latitude of the location. The upper end of the heat-pipe goes up into the water tank where the vapor is condensed and dribbles back to the hot end of the heat pipe.

Heat pipes have huge heat transfer capabilities. Using water as our working fluid, for instance, since all the air has been eliminated from the pipe, water will already boil at near its freezing point. (I have trouble getting my head around this one too) All it needs to start transferring heat is that the upper end be cooler than the lower end. It takes the "latent heat of evaporation" to vaporize the water regardless of what temperature it is boiling at and this heat is given out at the top end as it condenses. Since there are no air molecules in the tube to slow the passage of  the water molecules  on their way up to the top, they travel just as fast as the condensation allows.* The transfer is for all practical purposes, instantaneous.

*molecules travel at approximately the speed of sound.  The reason a smell, for instance, takes time to go across a room is that the odor molecules have to bump their way through the intervening air molecules.

Parabolic mirror
The heat collector is a silvered trough with a parabolic cross section. Your high school math student can tell you how to cut the pieces to product a parabola. Essentially it is made according to a formula such as Y = AX2. You can put in different values for "A" to change the width of the parabola.  The heat pipe is set at the focus of the parabola. Hence, if we can get the trough to point to the sun, all this heat energy will be focused on the heat pipe with its dribbling fluid coming down from the upper condensation end to be evaporated and sent back up again. The method of getting the parabola to point is the truly elegant part of this system.

The Detector Pipes 
We need some way of detecting if the parabolic mirror is facing the right way.  For this they used two thin walled, black painted aluminium pipes which were put under the parabolic reflector such that if the sun is directly shining on the parabolic mirror, both are in the shade.  As the sun moves, one of them receives the rays from the sun.  The pipe heats up and the air inside heats up.  A thin tube takes this pressure from each aluminium pipe to the detector.  The detector consists of two hemispheres each with a rubber membrane with the membranes pushed together.  The arm of a dumping valve is sandwitched between the rubber membranes.

Dumping Valve
On the net, a dumping valve is a valve to limit the manifold pressure of racing cars. However what I know as a dumping valve is as follows. Picture a valve, connected to the municipal water system and to a tank. There is a lever on the valve like there used to be on the old urinals. When the lever is pushed one way, it allows water from the municipal pipe into the tank. When the lever is pushed the other way, it dumps water from the tank through a third port. Now we are almost ready to start.  I have no idea where one gets such a valve but this is what the inventors used so they must be available somewhere.

Rotating the Reflector
We now have to be able to rotate the reflector around the heat pipe. To do this we attach a long piece of wood/aluminum tubing etc. Across the top of the parabola sticking out on one side. If we grabbed the outer end of this lever, we could swing the parabola either way. Instead we attach the shaft of a piston to the outer end. For the sake of the illustration think of a simple tubular bicycle pump with its handle attached to the outer end of this lever. Now if we attach the pump end of the bicycle pump to something solid and let in some air or water pressure in where the air usually come out, the handle will be pushed out and turn the parabolic trough.

Using the pressure from the detector pipes
Now we have to use the air pressure from the detector pipes. A thin tube comes out of each detector pipe. Remember these were the pipes located just in the shade of the trough collector. Each tube leads into a hemisphere. Think of a toilet float cut in half but with the cut end closed hermetically with a rubber membrane. If you push air into the half ball, the rubber membrane will bulge out. Take the two hemispheres, one connected to each detector pipe and put them together, face to face (rubber membrane to rubber membrane) and enclose the lever from the dumping valve between them. Now all we have to do is to attach the dumping valve to the municipal water system and the outlet to the "bicycle pump". As soon as one of the detector pipes gets a bit of sunshine on it, the air will expand, push the membrane of its hemisphere and push the lever of the dumping valve. Water will flow into the 'bicycle pump" and push the piston which will turn the parabolic collector. So far so good but we are still missing one part which you will probably have wondered about. How do we get the trough to swing back next day. This is where the spring comes in.

The spring
A long extending spring is also attached to the end of the lever which is attached across the top of the trough. It is attached so that it opposes the motion of the "bicycle pump". As soon as the sun comes up the next morning, the other detector pipe warms up and pushes the lever of the dumping valve the other way and dumps water from the "bicycle pump". The spring causes the solar collector to swings smoothly back to face the sun and the cycle starts again.

If I remember the story, and it has been some years, the inventors of this system tried photo cells to regulate the tracking of the mirror but found that the mirror "hunted". that is, it swung back and forth. Apparently with this system, the action is smooth and positive. Of added benefit, it is always problematic having electricity with water. This system is what a physicist or mathematician would call elegant. A system with beautiful simplicity. Except for the dumping valve, it is well within the capability of the home handy man. Does anyone out there have more information on this system and especially the names of the inventors. They deserve to be mentioned.

If anyone builds one of these, let me know and I will include your web site in this blog.