Italian Minister of Health authored the preface of a book supporting homoeopathy.

War on Science, yet another chapter. I think that anyone working in Science or caring about it, and anyone who aims to a growth in the public opinion’s awareness on the scientific issues of global interest, tends to spend some time to contrast hoaxes, misconceptions and anti-scientific propaganda. The most of the times, you end up returning references to the documents published by health and science officials to those ones claiming that “official science” is lying. If someone affirms that vaccines cause autism, or are potentially harmful for the child’s health, you may consider responding with data provided by health institutions. Likewise, if someone is keen to promote homoeopathy as a real cure, some documents published by the NIH, FDA or WHO, and proving its flat inefficacy, could turn out really useful. Basically, the most of the times, national and international health institutions are on your side, providing you and the whole public opinion with referenced data and clear positions in favour of  “official” biomedical science. But what happens if a national health institution turns its way, and starts supporting one of the major scientific hoaxes ever, such as homoeopathy?

This disturbing scenario has just become reality in Italy. The Minister of Health in charge, Beatrice Lorenzin, authored the preface of a book supporting homoeopathy, entitled In Praise Of Homoeopathy (Elogio della omeopatia) and written by Giovanni Gorga, president of an association of enterprises producing and delivering homoeopathic products. Even if the official position of the Ministry in matter of homoeopathy has remained unchanged, and homoeopathic products are sold in Italy as “medicals without any approved therapeutic indication“, this clear stance of the Minister Lorenzin generates concerns in the Italian scientific community.

The Italian non-profit organization CICAP, devoted since yeas to counteract the diffusion of anti-scientific information in Italy, has presented an open- letter to ask the Minister to clarify her position about the real efficacy of homoeopathic products, and to publicly declare that there are no evidences supporting it. The International Association of Italian Researchers (AIRI) is spending as well to spread this letter and rally the support of Italian researchers.

Being an ecologist and a radical leftist, I am very far from being a Beatrice Lorenzin’s supporter. Forty-four years old, serving as minister of health since the formation of the government led by Matteo Renzi in the spring of 2013, Beatrice Lorenzin grew her political career within the right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi. Anyways, I have always considered her a very reasonable woman and a politician of rare quality in the awful italian political landscape (not a big medal, actually). I am in fact pretty surprised by this awkward fail, and I still comfy that anything could be fixed.

I would limit to consider this fact as the usual yet another strange thing coming from Italy, or one of the many events stating how difficult the relationship between science and governance is, but I fear that something more serious is on the way. In the neo-liberal West, governments are all about economy, and the promotion of private sector has become the only concern of administrations of any political area. The last April, bloomberg published an insight pointing out that homoeopathy constitutes a billionaire market in the United States. I fear that the only element we don’t consider about this matter, is how much money an hoax could generate. Even if it is pretty clear that homoeopathic products have no effect on human health, it is still able to generate consent and to turn it into business and jobs. And a disturbing question comes along: will governments shut a wealthy sector for ethical reasons?

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Applying phylogenetics and bioinformatics to NF-kB studies

To anyone having to do something with immunity studies, the nuclear factor kappa-light-chain-enhancer of activated B cells, will sound really familiar. The NF-kB is a protein complex deputed to initiate the transcriptional response to external stimuli, such as stress, citokines, antigens, bacteria, free radicals or UV light irradiation. Expressed in active B cells, it is the protagonist of the immune response at molecular level.

For quite a long time, its evolutionary characterization has been rather neglected, since no homologous sequence is found. Actually, I often happen to realize that biomedical studies tend to keep quite far from evolutionary approach. Biomedicine is about to understand processes happening here and now, and it often aims to quickly find a reliable therapeutic approach for the disease of subject. So many factors to study, so little time. This shifts biomedical studies away from the influence of evolutionary biology. A real pity, as Catriona MacCallum  pointed out on PLoS Biology in 2007, since the contribution of evolutionary biology to biomedicine has a big, almost unexplored potential.

Recently, NF-kB and NF-kB-like proteins have been discovered in “basal” marine animals and non-metazoans, allowing the study of the early evolution of this nuclear complex of extraordinary importance for human health. John R. Finnerty and Thomas D. Gilmore from the University of Boston published an interesting paper on this topic just a few months ago, and I dare to introduce it here for two main reasons.

Beyond the clear scientific interest of their work, representing one of the few and really valuable evolutionary approaches to an all-biomedical subject, and highlighting deep conservation and repeated instances of parallel evolution in the sequence and structure of NF-κB in distant animal groups, which suggest that important functional constraints limit the evolution of this protein, it also provides an explanation of how to easily apply phylogenetic and bioinformatic approaches even without a previous hard training.

The authors run on the double track of reporting a scientific result, and introducing the reader to some simple (but still effective) computational tools that more or less anyone may use to implement phylogenetics in his/her work, rendering Methods for Analyzing the Evolutionary Relationship of NF-κB Proteins Using Free, Web-Driven Bioinformatics and Phylogenetic Tools a very interesting reading for both bionformaticians who need to communicate with experimentalists, and people working with NF-kB.

The article is part of the methodological book NF-kappaB. Methods and Protocols edited by Michael J. May and published by Springer Protocols.