Dissecting the words to match… airport codes

I have recently stumbled upon a fun (and rather good for time-wasting!) tool allowing you to see where your name would take you if it was spelled using the world’s international airport codes. Airporting.me splits your name and surname into chunks and places markers on the map based on the best matching codes. If you ever needed to point a finger at a map and let the fate decide where you want to go on your next trip – why not do it this way?

There has been some great uses of the world’s IATA airport codes. One of the leading travel brands ran an advertising campaign earlier this year that involved luggage tags with airport codes spelling out travel-related messages, such as “Lat-Ers” and “Bon-Voi-Age”.  Soon after the advertising world started wondering if it was that original. In any case, the limited character count on Twitter means more and more people on social media are using the airport code instead of the full city name (“At PRG waiting for plane to ARL.”), and the trend is growing.

We may all get to the point where in order to avoid embarrassment we’ll need to learn the IATA code for our most used airport, or at least be able to recognise the most commonly used codes (LAX for Los Angeles, LHR for London and ORD for Chicago). World Airport Codes has a dedicated mobile app that lets users do just that.

And, in case you were wondering, my name would have taken me to Australia, Kenya and the US.


Blind student sees light at the end of the tunnel.

EyeAn 18-year-old British man has had his failing eyesight improved by cutting edge gene therapy.

Steven Howard from Bolton, near Manchester, suffers from a rare form of blindness called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. The condition is the result of a faulty gene which prevents sufferers from manufacturing rhodopsin, a light-absorbing pigment which is a vital component of the human eye.

Lack of this pigment has left Howarth with extremely poor night-vision since birth but his vision was progressively worsening and would have left him totally blind by his mid-to-late twenties.

The treatment, pioneered by doctors at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital, works by replacing the damaged gene. This rejuvenates the dying cells on the retina and restores vision as they recover.

A healthy copy of the gene is inserted into the cells by injecting a fluid containing a modified virus which carries the healthy gene. When the virus ‘infects’ the retinal cells and copies its own genetic material across, it also copies the healthy gene and repairs the cells’ nuclei.

The treatment has improved Howarth’s low-light vision 100-fold and has also improved his peripheral vision, allowing him to see out of the corner of his eye for the first time. Where once he could barely walk across a dimly lit room, Howarth now says he would ‘feel comfortable’ walking home at night.

The study’s leader, Professor Robin Ali said that the result was “a major boost for the whole field”. Professor Ali, who is the brother of Brick Lane author Monica Ali, admitted that he was surprised to see such a significant improvement but now felt that gene therapies for other vision-reducing conditions, such as macular degeneration, could soon be possible.

He said “I find it difficult to remember being as excited as I am today about our science and what it might achieve.”

The success is the second breakthrough by Moorfield’s Eye Hospital in just over a week. On the 21st of April, researchers at the hospital announced the trialling of a ‘bionic eye’ which could help sufferers of a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, to regain a basic level of vision.

The ‘eye’ is actually a camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The camera picks up images and transmits them wirelessly to a receiver which is connected to the patient’s retina. The receiver sends a sequence of electrical impulses which the retina passes onto the brain. Here they are decoded as patterns of light and darkness to give subjects a vague outline of their surroundings.

Researchers warned that it was ‘early days’ but said that they were hopeful for the trial’s success.

Brain benefits from a daily cup of coffee

People have long been in two minds about whether having a cup every day is actually beneficial or not – certainly, having too much caffeine has always been agreed to be risky. Well, lately a number of new studies have shown that the effects of drinking coffee in moderate amounts can have a number of very strong benefits for the brain. Previously, it was shown that that coffee cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and now new studies have confirmed that coffee cuts down the damages of cholesterol and thereby reduces the risk of diseases such as dementia. Scientists call this “best evidence yet” for claiming that coffee is beneficial.

One of the experiments that was conducted was in rabbits in North Dakota that were fed a fat-rich diet. It was found that those rabbits that were given a caffeine supplement had a much better protected barrier between the brain and the main blood supply than the rabbits which were not. Similarly in humans, scientists say that there is a “blood brain barrier” which protects the brain from harmful chemicals carried in the blood. This barrier is said to become “leaky” if one consumes high levels of cholesterol, which contributes to the risk of mental diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Coffee strengthens this barrier, which means there is less potential for harmful chemicals to enter the brain.

As Dr Jonathan Geiger, who led the study explains:

“Caffeine appears to block several of the disruptive effects of cholesterol that make the blood-brain barrier leaky,” said Dr Jonathan Geiger, who led the study. High levels of cholesterol are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps by compromising the protective nature of the blood brain barrier. Caffeine is a safe and readily available drug and its ability to stabilise the blood brain barrier means it could have an important part to play in therapies against neurological disorders.”

This is very promising news, especially for those who are currently researching into cures for Alzheimer’s disease. A spokesperson for the Alzheimer’s Disease Society says:

“This is the best evidence yet that caffeine equivalent to one cup of coffee a day can help protect the brain against cholesterol. In addition to its effect on the vascular system, elevated cholesterol levels also cause problems with the blood brain barrier. This barrier, which protects the brain from toxins and infections, is less efficient prior to brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease or strokes.”

Coffee-lovers will be pleased that their favourite drink will also be protecting their brains for years to come.

Royal Mint reveals sparkling new coins

Royal Mint has unveiled new designs for British coins which have not changed in appearance in over 40 years, since decimalisation April 1968. Described as one of the biggest events in British History, the new coins, which can be seen here combine modern designs with traditional elegance. They were announced as the result of a competition which ran since 2005 and received over 4000 entries.

The winning designer of the coins is 26-year-old Matthew Dent, a graphic designer who lives and works in London. What makes the designs particularly striking is that the royal coat of arms has been split amongst the six denominations, the crowning piece being the £1 which displays the entire heraldic shield. This is the first time the coins have contained elements of a singular design. The other side will retain the traditional image of the Queen’s head and the two pound coin has not changed.

Dent is understandably amazed that his own designs will be on every new British coin. He says:

“For designs of mine to appear on a medium as significant and prestigious as the United Kingdom’s coinage and to be produced and circulated in millions is a tremendous honour.”

The new designs mark a huge event in British history. As Andrew Stafford, chief executive of the Royal Mint explains:

“It is the only work of art that every member of the general public touches every day, that is important to the nation’s way of life,”

The coins will gradually begin to circulate in the summer, though old coins will remain legal tender. Personally, I really like the thoughtful new designs and though the old coins will be missed (especially the 50 pence coins with images of Britannia), I’m sure most people will like the fresh new look which was long overdue. I can’t wait to get my hands on some (though I suspect I’ll be reluctant to use them as anything but a jigsaw puzzle initially!).

BBC newsreader cracks up on air

_44520736_green_bbc203i.jpgBBC Radio 4’s newsreader Charlotte Green has caused hundreds of comments being sent in as she started laughing on air whilst presenting this morning. The well-known 50 year old reader, who incidentally has also been voted to have the “Most Attractive Female Voice on National Radio”, was discussing an ancient recording of the human voice when she started giggling uncontrollably. She squirmed her way through her next news story which, to put the cherry on the cake, happened to be on a death. Here is the clip.

Green, who is also said to have done a very similar thing ten years ago, is embarrassed about the incident. She says it was sparked by a colleague telling her that the sound was like a “bee buzzing in a bottle”. Describing how difficult it was to keep a straight face when discussing the death of screenwriter Abby Mann, Green said:

“I’m afraid I just lost it, I was completely ambushed by the giggles. I did feel slightly embarrassed, knowing I have this reputation that I am prone to getting the giggles”

However, many listeners found the incident cheered up their day, with Today’s editor, Ceri Thomas, saying that most listeners who contacted them said “how much they had enjoyed the moment”. Not only that but Green’s fit of the giggles was repeated on later in the day as there had been so many requests to hear it again. As Green says:

“People have been very sweet and everyone has been coming up to me said how much it has cheered up their Friday morning.”

Whilst some may have found the incident insulting, I’m glad that most have been amused to witness their favourite dignified newsreader reduced to this state on air. Personally, I completely empathise with Charlotte as I know full well how difficult it is to stop laughing sometimes, and the more you try and suppress it, the worse it becomes! It is just unlucky how bad the timing was. Let’s hope any offended listeners can take this very human behaviour with a pinch of salt.

Hope for arthritis sufferers


A new ‘smart drug’ for treating rheumatoid arthritis has received extremely positive results in two separate trials published this week in The Lancet.

Medical schools at the University of Vienna and the University of Yokohama have studied rheumatoid arthritis sufferers over a wide age range being treated with tocilizumab, a drug developed by pharmaceutical giants Roche and Chugai. Both studies found that the treatment could massively reduce the severity of the symptoms which the patients had to suffer and could do so with fewer side effects than common treatments

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder which affects over 450,000 people in the UK and is far more common in women than men. The disease creates painful swellings in the joints and can even destroy the cartilage padding them, making the pain even worse. It can also lead to tiredness and other symptoms such as rashes and can increase the risk of heart disease.

These symptoms are caused by the immune system mistakenly identifying cells of the sufferer’s own body as disease microbes. It attacks these cells by flooding them with white blood cells called T-lymphocytes

The disease is usually treated with drugs called disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), the most common of which is called methotrexate. These drugs work by blocking the enzyme pathways needed to allow the T-lymphocytes to form and to attach to the sufferer’s cells. The major disadvantage of these treatments is that they are all extremely toxic and cannot be taken for a prolonged period of time, making them unsuitable for treating chronic sufferers.

Tocilizumab works by attacking the problem from a different angle. It blocks the synthesis of a protein called interleukin-6 which is found in high concentrations in severely inflamed joints and, by doing so, claims to reduce the severity of the condition. It is also far less toxic as it blocks a less crucial pathway.

The first study, by the University of Vienna, focussed on adult sufferers and says that the new drug, based on the structure of a human antibody, “significantly and rapidly improves the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis”.

In this trial, the drug was given to 623 patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis. A successful outcome for this study was defined as a 20% improvement in symptoms (under American College of Rheumatology criteria)

Of the 623 patients, 205 were given 8mg of tocilizumab per kg of body weight, 214 patients received 4mg per kg of body weight and 204 received a placebo. The drugs and placebo were given intravenously every four weeks, along with methotrexate, at doses of 10-25mg per week.

After 24 weeks, 59% of patients receiving the 8mg dose had shown a 20% decrease in symptoms. In those receiving 4mg, 48% recorded a response, compared with 26% in the placebo group. This, the study says, proves that tocilizumab could be “an effective agent for the treatment of patients with moderate to severe rheumatoid arthritis.”

The second study, by the University of Yokohama, focussed on juvenile arthritis sufferers aged 2-19. It found an improvement in symptoms in 91% of the patients treated and hails tocilizumab as “a step forward in the control of a disease that has previously proved to be difficult to manage”.

Both trials found adverse effects, such as gastric infections, in some subjects but, compared to the extreme side effects which traditional arthritis treatments can have, these were comparatively minor. Therefore, tocilizamub seems to represent a significant advance in the treatment of this painful and crippling disease.

Should deaf parents be able to choose deaf children?

New legislations regarding IVF treatment have recently made it impossible for parents to choose an embryo with a genetic defect when a healthy one is available. Most people would regard this as an important and beneficial move but a recent case has sparked much controversy over the issue. A set of deaf parents, who see deafness as a cultural phenomenon rather than a true disability, want to have a deaf child despite being able to have a hearing child instead.

This is one of the few cases where the parents have preferred their child to have a disability than to not, and it has sparked outrage from both sides. Tomato Lichy and his partner, who already “thankfully” have a deaf child, argue that they will be able to connect better with their new child if it cannot hear – deafness, they say, comes with many beautiful cultural features such as deaf in-jokes and deaf-language. They argue that to refuse their right to have a deaf child would be discrimination, effectively saying that deaf people cannot have worthwhile lives. As Lichy says:

“The core issue is that the government is saying deaf people are not equal to hearing people. Despite the fact that over time we have seen more and more rights for disabled people they are now seeking to establish a legal principle that deaf people are inferior – and there may be more laws once this gap opens.”

For Lichy and his partner, the preference is so great that they would regard a hearing child as a disabled one. However, many have retaliated by saying that deliberately choosing a child who will face problems in life is morally condemnable. It cannot be discrimination because the argument is not that deaf children don’t have worthy lives but that hearing children have a higher potential for a better life. As chief executive Jackie Ballard of The Royal National Institute for Deaf People explains:

“Deafness is a disability and we have spent a long time campaigning to improve the lives of people who live with it. But it is certainly not a slight to the deaf to say it is better to bring a child who will face the least difficulty into the world, when there is a choice to be made.”

Personally, I agree and I think that to call hearing ability a disability is not only absurd but insulting to the majority of deaf people who do feel that their lack of hearing is a deficiency. Thankfully the Royal National Institute for Deaf People are also against Lichy’s plans. Why deliberately cause damage to a child without even giving it a chance of hearing? (no hearing child would feel “worse off”) The parents may feel that deafness has given them comparable substitutes, but how would they even know how good hearing is? At any rate, the argument is a slippery slope. What’s to stop parents who can’t walk now asking for a limbless child?

Biggest earthquake in England in 25 years

At approximately 1am this morning, an earthquake shook many homes all across the country. The earthquake, which measured 5.3 on the Richter scale, is the most intense one experienced in 25 years, with much damage being caused to buildings as well as injuries caused to residents. The British Geological Survey have said that the earthquake’s epicentre was near Market Rasen in Lincolnshire.

The tremors, which were felt in many places such as Newcastle, Yorkshire, Wales, and London had widespread effects. In many streets residents came out in their dressing gowns to find out what had happened. The emergency services were alerted at many homes which suffered great damage from the tremor. Not only that, but there were some injuries as well. For example, 19 year old student David Bates was pinned under masonry in his attic bedroom in Barnsley Road, Wombwell, South Yorks, and suffered a broken pelvis as a result and had to be taken to hospital. His father said:

“There was a rumble and then we heard a bang and my son screaming ‘Dad’.”

Other residents from the country also had stories to tell about the shaking. For example, Bev Finnegan from Market Rasen, where the tremors were greatest, said:

“I was terrified to be honest. The noise was really, really terrifying… it was so deep and rumbling. It felt like the roof was going to fall in. There were people coming out in their dressing gowns wondering what it was. It was quite an experience.”

Thankfully there were no emergency calls from Lincolnshire about injuries. A Lincolnshire Police spokesperson has said:

“There is slight structural damage, cracks and a couple of chimneys damaged. There’s nothing serious at present. Mostly people were distressed by it so there were a large quantity of calls coming in.”

Since this was the biggest earthquake for so long, many have been naturally worried that it will happen again, perhaps even worse than this time. But the British Geological Survey has said that earthquakes such as these are very rare so there is no need to fear. As Dr Brian Baptie, of the BGS, said:

“An earthquake of this size, of magnitude five or thereabouts, will occur roughly every 10 to 20 years in the UK. So we can get these kind of moderate to significant earthquakes of this size but they’re relatively rare.”

Myself, I felt a mild tremor all the way down in Cambridge – thankfully, I didn’t feel much of the terror as it was so mild but I was certainly confused. I’m so glad the mystery was resolved!

The Drugs Don’t Work?

pills.jpgSales of Morrissey albums will soar, the poetry of Leonard Cohen will top the bestsellers lists, black will become (if possible) more fashionable. No, it’s not the Eighties coming back, it’s a new piece of research saying that, if you’re depressed, you may need to live with it and not rely on pills to feel better because anti-depressants may not really work.

The study, published yesterday in the journal PLoS Medicine and led by an academic from the University of Hull, took data from 35 clinical trials, covering the four most-prescribed anti-depressants in the US. The results from these studies were pooled and examined to see if, overall, there was any significant effect of anti-depressant.

The research found that, overall, there was a improvement in mood when taking an anti-depressant. But it also found that an almost equal improvement in mood was seen when taking a sugar-pill that the subject was told was an anti-depressant. In fact, in two of the trials, patients reported feeling happier when taking the sugar-pill than they did when taking the actual drug.

Interestingly, the trial found that the more depressed an individual was to begin with, the greater the benefit that they seemed to get from the drug. Severely depressed individuals were the group who reported the biggest difference in improvement of mood when taking the real drug and when taking the sugar pill.

The study’s authors say that this is a false result, “attributable to a decrease in responsiveness to placebo, rather than an increase in responsiveness to medication.” More depressed people were no more likely to report an increase in mood with the anti-depressant, they were just less likely to report an improvement with the placebo.

If these drugs have no real effect, then why are they still prescribed? In the year 2006/2007 there were over 31 million prescriptions for anti-depressants in the UK. Would so many people be taking them if they didn’t make them feel better?

According to the study’s authors, any beneficial effects you might feel come down to a ‘placebo effect’. We’ve probably all heard stories of people getting drunk on water because they believe it’s vodka. This, in essence, is a ‘placebo effect’; something affects you a certain way because you believe it should. Anti-depressants make you happier because you expect to be happier. After all, you’re taking anti-depressants.

So, should this finding be seen as a hammer-blow to depressives, one less way to scare away the black dog?

No. If anything it should be seen as a hopeful message as it shows just how easily depression can be relieved if you’re in the right frame of mind. They say “Let a smile be your umbrella” but an upbeat attitude could protect you from more than just rain.

House Husband Happiness?

Valentine’s Day has been and gone and left in its wake the treacley-sweet feeling of how nice it is to be in love. But for many couples, the post-Valentine’s match report can actually leave them questioning just how happy they really are. Fortunate then, that a new study from the University of Texas suggests a couple’s relationship can be made much stronger by stepping into each other’s shoes.

The adjustment to parenthood after a new baby arrives has been identified as one of the most stressful times in a relationship and it can be weakened for up to a year after the birth. Recent studies have suggested that this may be because men were struggling to fill the traditional ‘breadwinner’ image of a father. This struggle was causing them to become “emotionally isolated” from their families as their duty to earn money became so much more significant.

Up until now, though, little work has been done on families where the mother was the breadwinner and the father looked after the children. In theory, these couples should face even more stress from the arrival of a new child because, not only are they coping with their new responsibilities, but they also have to deal with society judging them for bucking the usual ‘stay-at-home mum’ and ‘working dad’ roles.

In reality, the new University of Texas survey found, fathers who were also caregivers often rated their relationship satisfaction much higher. This increased satisfaction seemed to stem mostly from the fact that the men felt more supported by (and supportive of) their partners than those in a more traditional role.

The men might have partly been more supportive as they felt freed of the responsibilities associated with a job. This, though, seemed unlikely since many men treated the daily responsibilities of childcare much like those of a job. The survey’s authors suggested that, even if childcare was treated as a job, it was a job that felt more meaningful and more challenging for the fathers. This made them feel more supported as they were being allowed to try the role out while their partners took on their perceived responsibilities. At the same time, they understood the pressures facing their spouse in the working world and, as they could empathise, they were more supportive.

This research shouldn’t suggest to every man that he should instantly down tools and become a house-husband but it does emphasise how important it is to try to see things from your significant other’s point-of-view. So instead of roses next year, perhaps the best Valentine’s Day gift would be a good dose of perspective.