Thursday, August 11, 2022

Game-changing new test and treatment for Long Covid

Australian scientists are a step closer to a test and treatment for long Covid, after determining it causes the same biological impairments as chronic fatigue syndrome.

The ground breaking findings, by Griffith University researchers, could significantly help the 500,000 Australians estimated to be battling the condition.

Long Covid is a collection of symptoms including extreme fatigue (tiredness), shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain or tightness that continue more than 12 weeks after a Covid infection, and can be severe enough to prevent a person working or living normal life.

Professor Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik, who is behind the research which will be published the Journal of Molecular Medicine on Thursday, has already developed a diagnostic test for chronic fatigue syndrome and identified potential treatments.

“The receptors that we have identified previously as being faulty or dysfunctional in ME/CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) patients have the same dysfunction in those long Covid patients we’ve examined,” she said.

“Patients with long Covid report neurocognitive, immunologic, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular manifestations, which are also symptoms of ME/CFS,” Professor Marshall-Gradisnik said.

Her research team has been working on chronic fatigue syndrome for more than a decade and has identified a family of receptors that are dysfunctional in patients suffering ME/CFS.

They found patients with the syndrome had lower levels of calcium coming into their cells, and that their cells stored less calcium, and this was the basis of their illness.

“These channels allow ions such as calcium to flow in and out of cells, and thereby control many different biological processes,” she said.

“Patients can experience different symptoms depending on which cells in the body are affected – from brain fog and muscle fatigue to possible organ failure.”

Blood tests performed in Professor Marshall-Gradisnik’s laboratory show people with long Covid have the same damage to these receptors as patients with ME/CFS.

“Calcium is like the Goldilocks molecule. It is like the most important molecule you can have. It causes muscle contraction and causes brain activity. It’s very much critical in all cell functions,” she said.

A significant proportion of people who develop ME/CFS do so following a virus so it is thought these receptors are activated by viruses and, of course, patients that have long Covid had a viral assault, Professor Marshall-Gradisnik said.

Her team has already developed a diagnostic blood test for the ME/CFS that also has the potential to be used in long Covid patients. It is being refined so it can be done in hours, not days.

The team is also testing a range of available medical treatments that worked on calcium channels to see if they may be a possible treatment.

They found the drug Naltrexone at a very low dose of 0.5 milligrams to five milligrams stopped the obstruction of the opioid receptor on the calcium channel, allowing it to function again.

Professor Marshall-Gradisnik said taking calcium supplements was not of any use.

“It’s not what you ingest, it is how calcium gets processed and gets into the cell that matters,” she said.

There have been more than 9.5 million cases of Covid reported in Australia and five per cent, or around 475,000, of these patients are expected to be left with long-term illness.


Activist historians — a monumental waste of space

Our last visit to Hobart was a few years ago, but I remember it well. The waters were a bright blue, the views breathtaking, and the scenery spectacular. The locals were friendly, the beer taps were flowing, and the pubs abundant. The seafood was incredibly fresh, the restaurants diverse and plentiful, and the wines scintillating. But something was not right.

Even a delightful high summer day, the heat mitigated by a gentle sea breeze, was not enough to dispel the onset of melancholy. Morose and listless, I returned to the apartment.

By late afternoon, I had lost interest in our plans for the evening. A sleepless and restless night followed. By next morning, my despondency had given way to a burning anger at a monumental and longstanding injustice, the source of which I could not identify.

For several years I wondered what troubled me so. But thanks to the Hobart City Council, I now know the cause of my angst. It was the fact that the city’s named statues feature white men exclusively. Yes, all seven of them. As The Australian reported this week, the council will deliberate on a report which has found the city has too many monuments to “Caucasian males”.

The catalyst for this epiphany is a statue in Central Hobart of William Crowther, a nineteenth century naturalist, surgeon and premier. In 1869, he was accused of decapitating the corpse of an Indigenous man, William Lanne, for anatomical study. The council has all but decided the monument will be removed, which conveniently opens the way for a cultural purge of other colonial figures.

If it accepts the report’s recommendations, the council will decide on a policy for further statue “additions and removals”. Mind you, that’s not to say all seven statues will be toppled. For example, former premier Albert Ogilvie’s statue is likely to have the backing of the city’s Greens councillors. As the University of Tasmania website notes, the former Labor premier was “sympathetic” to the Soviet Union in the mid to late 1930s.

As for the remaining statues, well, decolonisation. No more being confronted with the monument to Abel Tasman, the first European to reach what was known as Van Diemen’s Land. No more steeling oneself when passing by King Edward VII’s likeness. Question the activists who parrot this nonsense, and you will be accused of waging a culture war. As for the council’s meek acceptance of this mantra, how does it sit with the organisation’s vision statement as outlined in its last annual report? You know, “We resist mediocrity and sameness”?

Citing numbers compiled by Monument Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported this week that 38 monuments across the country are dedicated to Captain James Cook. But if activists have their way, that number will fall. According to Nancy Cushing, an associate professor of history at the University of Newcastle, every statue should be assessed as to its relevance every 50 years or so.

“People say if you take down a statue you are changing history, but I don’t quite see it that way,” she told the SMH. “Statues manifest a set of beliefs held at least by some people at the time they were erected.”

The latter may be so, but nonetheless to remove statues, especially ones that date back to the colonial era, is to remove historical objects from the landscape. And increasingly the motivation for doing so is not to change history – that would be impossible – but to change our interpretation of history to suit a militant narrative.

In any event, you might assume the historian’s default position would be to preserve historical statues as opposed to assigning them a use by date. Maintaining their existence does not prevent academics from rigorously and objectively reassessing the legacy of the people they depict.

But apparently that is no longer the case. If you want to know where the discipline of history is heading, I suggest you read Cushing’s essay ‘#CoalMustFall: Revisiting Newcastle’s coal monument in the Anthropocene,’ which this year was awarded the Australian Historical Association’s Marian Quartly Prize.

The subject of her paper is self-evident, a monument that was erected in 1909. To my mind, the display is innocuous, but not to Cushing. Its presence, she writes, “silently contradicts the weight of scientific opinion which indicates that continued reliance on burning coal will lead not to wellbeing but to cataclysm”.

She imagines the monument being wrested from its base and thrown into the harbour by protesters. “Even without such a violent intervention, it is timely to consider what is to be done with a memorial to a substance which is now known to be an agent of irreparable harm to the planet.” The urgent situation justifies what Cushing calls “activist histories”.

You will be relieved to know she does not call for mob intervention. Instead Cushing wants the monument shifted to a museum. The original would be replaced with a “counter-monument” to “manage the grief associated with the exposure of coal’s role in the slow disaster of climate change”.

And her parallels aren’t exactly subtle. “As was the case with Jochen Gerz and Esther-Shalev Gerz’s 1986 counter-monument against fascism in Hamburg [Germany], the coal counter-monument would soon be covered with a ‘conglomerate of approval, hatred, anger and stupidity’”.

Cushing also envisages a counter-monument on the coastline where Newcastle’s former gaol was built in 1816. “From this position, a counter-monument would be visible to locals and visitors including the crews of the bulk coal carriers waiting to enter the port, and like the gaol in its time, offer up a warning to observers that behavioural change is necessary to avoid dire consequences.”

Excuse me, but is this a history lecture or did I walk into the drama class by mistake?

As for Hobart City Council, its ‘Community, Culture and Events Committee’ will today decide the fate of the Crowther statue. If it adopts the report’s recommendations, it will spend $20,000 on removing and storing the bronze component while retaining the plinth. Another $50,000 will be spent on “interpretive elements onsite”.

The result? Well, you could say these grand plans resemble the councillors who are in favour of them. A total waste of space.


How did climate doomsters get the Great Barrier Reef so wrong?

Ross Clark

We are, of course, in the midst of a ‘climate emergency’ and the ‘sixth mass extinction’ of life on Earth. It is just that one of the iconic victims doesn’t seem to be playing ball just at the moment. As recently as May, environmentalists were warning that the Great Barrier Reef, the 1,500-mile coral structure off the coast of Queensland, was being doomed by warming seas. It was reported to be suffering a ‘mass bleaching’ – where the plants which live on the reef and provide food for it die off. The blame was put on warmer seas. Worse, this was the first mass bleaching event to occur in a ‘La NiƱa’ year, when the seas off Australia are supposed to be going through a cyclical cooling phase. A gloomy David Wachenfeld, chief scientist of the Great Barrier Reef Authority, told the Guardian at the time that ‘unexpected events are now to be expected. Nothing surprises me more’.

Except something now has surprised those foretelling the end of the Great Barrier Reef. The latest survey of the reef by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which was undertaken in May, just as the Guardian report was published, reveals that coral cover has not only recovered but across two-thirds of the reef it is now at its highest level in 36 years of observations. The speed of the recovery of the coral is remarkable; in 2016 the entire reef was declared dead in an obituary published in the environmental magazine Outside. But, like the stories of people saved from cremation by a slight twitch at the eleventh hour, its death seems to have been exaggerated.

Not, of course, that the environmental movement can quite bring itself to celebrate the result of the latest survey. The Guardian’s coverage of the report is an object lesson in how environmental news is driven only by misery. ‘The world heritage site still has some capacity for recovery,’ it reports, ‘but the window is closing fast as the climate continues to warm’. A more appropriate sub-headline, surely, would have been: ‘Great Barrier Reef defies reports of its death as scientists under-estimate its capacity to recover from bleaching events.’ It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the response of the reef to warmer seas is not fully understood. When you have comprehensive data going back only 36 years it is pretty difficult to understand long-term trends.

None of this is to say, of course, that the Great Barrier Reef might not conceivably be at risk from warmer seas at some point. And there is a worry, too, that diverse ecosystems have been replaced by a handful of dominant coral species, making the entire reef more susceptible to environmental changes. But for the moment, you might think that the climatic doomsters might be big enough to admit that they were wrong, and that along with Al Gore’s prediction for the end of Kilimanjaro snows by 2020, nature has once again defied their grim prophecies.


Forget the fads: Maths teachers urged to focus on traditional teaching methods

Maths teachers should ditch “faddish” practices and focus on proven methods such as using clear and detailed instruction and teaching algorithms.

A new report from the Centre for Independent Studies says that teachers are often misinformed about how students learn and what works in the classroom.

The report, Myths are Undermining Maths Teaching, calls for a focus on traditional education methods such as explicit teaching, involving the explanation and demonstration of new skills, instead of “inquiry-based learning”.

Opposing education academics say teachers should be able to use their professional judgment to decide the best teaching methods on a case-by-case basis.

Australian student achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has declined more steeply and consistently than any other country except Finland. This downward trend has been greatest in mathematics. Compared with the top-performer, Singapore, the Australian students who sat the most recent PISA test in 2018 were three years behind in maths.

The report was co-authored by Sarah Powell, an associate professor in the department of special education at the University of Texas. She said myths dominated the teaching of maths, harming students’ learning and leading to educational failure.

“They have become so commonplace because teachers are regularly misinformed about how students learn and what works in the classroom,” she said.

Among the “teaching myths” outlined in the report are that teaching algorithms is harmful, that timed assessments cause maths anxiety, that “productive struggle” is helpful for students, and that inquiry learning is the best approach.

Inquiry learning involves teachers starting with a range of scenarios, questions and problems for students to navigate, instead of presenting information or instruction directly.

“Helping teachers to substitute faddish and evidence-free practices with proven, effective teaching will lift outcomes of students,” Powell said.

The report argues in favour of explicitly teaching students mathematics skills first and later encouraging independent practice and application of skills.

“While some students may thrive with true inquiry-based learning, their success is an exception rather than the standard outcome,” the report said.

Australian Catholic University STEM research director Professor Vince Geiger said teachers should be able to incorporate both explicit teaching and inquiry learning into their teaching. He said the research paper appeared to be reflective of a very specific point of view.

“It does amaze me when people put these ideas up as a juxtaposition,” he said. “The best teachers I know take the position that you need to do some of both.”

Geiger said the PISA results indicated Australian students were not falling short in their procedural maths abilities but rather in reasoning and problem-solving.

“We’ve got to get our kids to be better at adaptive type thinking – taking what they learn in the classroom and being able to apply it in different situations and contexts and real-world situations,” he said. “Explicit teaching by itself won’t get them there.”

Debate over the merits of inquiry-based mathematics learning and explicit teaching split the profession during a recent debate about Australia’s proposed new national curriculum.

Northholm Grammar School head of mathematics Phil Waldron said his school had a strong focus on direct instruction, where every step of a maths problem was directly modelled by a teacher for students, which was producing excellent results.

“The report reinforces the idea that students’ understanding is developed by the teacher and that it’s easy for the teachers to take students’ knowledge for granted and therefore miss steps in instruction,” he said.

“The problem with inquiry learning is that students are often left to figure it out for themselves and it’s all based on prior understanding and contextual understanding for them.

“You always need a foundation, you can’t start with inquiry, students need a level of understanding before they start to think for themselves.”

Waldron said inquiry learning was promoted as best practice through his teacher training at university.

“I’ve been blessed with professional experience that was somewhat counter to what I walked away from university with,” he said. “And now the evidence is suggesting that what these older staff members were doing is, in fact, the best way.”




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