Letters: Gene research

Gordon Brown must fund research into disabling genetic diseases
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Sir: I am feeling rather ashamed because my first reaction to the news that Gordon Brown's son has cystic fibrosis was that I was pleased. But before anyone brands me a heartless cow, I must explain that I have been campaigning for the last three or four years for funding for a cure for another genetic disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

During this time, I have met parents whose lives have been turned upside down by their child's diagnosis and have heard how their distress at knowing what the future holds for their child has been exacerbated by the battles they have had with various authorities, including the education services, local authority housing departments and social services.

While the authorities argue about whose responsibility it is to make provision for these children, the parents have to live with them each day: to risk injury when lifting the child on to the toilet or out of bed because no one has provided them with a hoist; to be unable to hold down a job because of the possibility that, if the support worker in school is off sick, their child will be sent home; and to be unable to afford their contribution to the essential adaptations to their home.

David Cameron has a child with cerebral palsy, so if Gordon Brown becomes leader of the Labour Party, we are almost certain that our next Prime Minister will have first-hand experience of living with a disabled child. Perhaps we can now look forward to some proper provision for disabled children. Considered alongside the scientific advances that are being made to enhance the lives of these children, this really does feel like the start of a new era.

Clinically, the prospects for children with cystic fibrosis and with Duchenne muscular dystrophy have improved tremendously over the last 20 years. As far a DMD is concerned, we have several prospective cures or treatments going into safety and clinical trials in the next couple of years, and we have been lobbying the Chancellor of the Exchequer, among others, to secure adequate funding for these trials. Our lobbying will continue, as it must, with added poignancy given the news about Gordon Brown's son.

My heart goes out to him and his wife.



British Army prisons show best practice

Sir: After Lord Ramsbotham's lambast of the prison system (30 November), I was left slightly demoralised by the lack of useful recommendations. I would suggest you need look no further than the British Army. Although it has had poor media coverage over detention centres in Iraq, it controls some of the very best "prisons" in Britain.

The Army runs a Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) where prisoners who have broken military or civilian law will be held for two years and then either released, dismissed or transferred to civilian prisons. Within this centre the "prisoners" are put through intensive training regimes; they are always doing something and very often become far better soldiers when they come out than they were when they went in. Also, courses are run so that inmates can qualify in useful areas of civilian work.

The re-offending rate of soldiers who go through this centre is incredibly low and very often you find that company or regimental sergeant majors have at some point been there. Families are also helped to come to the centres so they can stay in touch with loved ones.

Perhaps someone from the Government who feels the need to decide what should be done for prisons might spend a few days touring these facilities and gain some very valuable ideas.



Sir: Among your many interviews with prisoners and their families, there is not a single reference to why the people concerned are or were in prison, or a single mention of any remorse. Not committing crime is not listed among the alternatives to prison, and your statistics fail to mention the dramatic fall in overall crime figures in recent years.

Everything in these articles suggests that questioning anti-prison attitudes makes me a reactionary by default. There are many things wrong with our legal, drug rehabilitation and mental health systems, and I believe they deserve to be challenged. But that doesn't mean that prison is by definition wrong, or that it should be the enjoyable experience some of your interviewees appear to crave. It's a form of punishment, and if the Government chooses to stop imprisoning criminals, the press would be the first to complain.



Circumcision can help in HIV battle

Sir: You gave a full and frightening report on the inexorable advance of Aids, and not only in poorer countries (1 December). Yet there was no mention of the importance of circumcision in the battle.

WHO has been in discussions about ways of holding mass circumcision campaigns in the worst-affected areas, and UNAids is also at an advanced stage of readiness for circumcision programmes. Already more than 40 reports have demonstrated a three-to-four times reduction in the spread of HIV, and two major trials are about to report.

The foreskin is known to contain Langerhan cells, which, far from being protective, actually encourage the replication and the spread of HIV. Removal of the foreskin also gives protection from other major sexually transmitted diseases, such as syphilis, gonnorhoea, and the wart virus responsible for cancer of the cervix.



Sir: It is not only Aids drugs that are unavailable or not affordable in much of the developing world; the most powerful analgesics to control pain and distress are also lacking. Because of government drug policies, there is little or no medical access to heroin or heroin-type drugs, even though opium poppies are grown in many developing countries. Poppy products are either exported legally for medical use or illegally for recreational use in the developed world. This clearly compounds the suffering of Aids victims.



'Bad history' passed off as research

Sir: I was interested to see that S F Tonkin (letter, 30 November) uses the "truthinscience" DVDs, which deal with "intelligent design", as a teaching aid when he is explaining bad science to his pupils.

It's not only bad science that purports to be genuine intellectual debate, though. In my own field, history, there is a plethora of rubbish being passed off as research. It appears on television, in the form of roving global pyramid builders; on the internet in these fruitless arguments over the veracity of the moon landings; or on paper, in such "documents" as those supposedly proving that Hitler was alive and well and actually Prince John, son of George V, which were sent to the heads of university history departments in the late 1990s.

The questions are, do we give such nonsense any oxygen of publicity and have we really got the time to devote to bad arguments when there is so much genuine research with which to challenge the minds of young scholars?



Fight against party lists in upper house

Sir: It's good news if the Government is edging towards acceptance of a mainly elected upper house, which would be best called a Senate ("Four in five peers would be elected", 30 November). But, so far, their proposals do not merit the term "election". If all it is proposing is the "election" of peers in party lists on the basis of the votes cast at a general election, that is still a crude system of party appointments.

Voters will have no means of deciding who is elected on the basis of the candidates offered. Indeed, the votes they cast will be for an altogether different purpose, that of electing the House of Commons and thereby deciding which party or parties form the next government.

A genuinely elected new upper house must enable voters to choose who they wish to sit in that house. That means an electoral system - a form of PR such as the single transferable vote (STV) - that enables them to do that. It also means holding an election that is quite independent from that to elect MPs, and preferably on a different timetable.



The fox is a friend to some farmers

Sir: The letter from the former MP David Rendel (1 December) was excellent in its condemnation of James Barrington, but it failed on one issue. He claimed that foxes were an "acknowledged" agricultural pest. This is not true.

There are some farmers who view the fox as a friend because it keeps down many of the pests that destroy crops.

If Mr Rendel had read the Burns report, he would also know that lamb losses to foxes was very low, so how can the fox be a recognised pest? Also the fox is not "officially" classed a pest.



Have we hit the limit of the human brain?

Sir: Steve Connor has a brave shot at making sense of Stephen Hawking ("Hands up who really understands what Stephen Hawking is telling us", 2 December). The point may be, however, that advanced science is simply telling us more and more not about the universe but about the limitations of the human brain to understand beyond a certain point. And that point may be the evolved restriction of human intelligence imposed by evolutionary adaptation to this particular planet.

We are totally the creatures of our terrestrial environment. True, with Hubble telescopes, electron microscopes and particle accelerators we can detect more than we do naturally. But all data have to be translated back into forms that suit the most primitive human perceptions: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. For these reasons, scientific speculations at a certain level are little more than verbal linguistic juggling. For example, how can we conceive many dimensions unless the word "dimension" itself is taken out of any comprehensible usage and stretched to mean something inconceivable and thus circular and pointless.

Some Muslim scientists, and Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, have argued that human science has natural limitations conducive to human problems and to their solutions. What price a hypothesis for the first millionth of a second after the Big Bang when millions of children face starvation on this planet and hundreds of thousands have no water?



Sir: What arrogance! If the human race cannot or will not take care and show respect for the planet, then it deserves to become extinct through its own folly and foolishness.

The species does not have the moral or ethical right to attempt to travel to, and colonise, other solar systems, as Stephen Hawking says ("We must travel to the stars to save the human race", 1 December), causing further chaos and destruction elsewhere in the universe. We should stay at home and put right the wrongs that have been wreaked on our own planet.



Sir: What is it about Stephen Hawking's popular science book A Brief History of Time that compels all journalists to add "but few people have been able to finish it". What they mean is "Neither I nor my liberal studies-educated mates have been able to finish it". I doubt it would present any major difficulties to a reasonably competent first-year undergraduate ... on a science course.



Miner birds

Sir: It is four colley, not calling, birds. Colley birds are blackbirds, from the same root as collier. Ask any Midlands ex-coalminer.



Pavement safety

Sir: Following on from Jake Shaw's letter (27 November), I was crossing Fleet Street last Thursday when the "cross now" light was showing. Having crossed the nearside, I was proceeding across the far side of the road when I was struck on the shoulder by a cyclist who seemed to come from nowhere at a fast pace, nearly knocking me over. He looked round but did not stop. Needless to say, he was wearing a helmet and all the gear. Perhaps it is now time for pedestrians to do likewise.



England is not Britain

Sir: The answer to the question in your headline "Is 1,400-year-old treasure evidence of Christianity's first foothold in Britain?" (1 December) is, of course, a resounding "No!" The headline writer is committing the student howler of confusing Britain and England. There is plenty of evidence for Christianity in Britain before the date of this treasure (circa AD600?) in the London area and elsewhere. But this treasure may be the first evidence of Christianity among the new English settlers of Britain, and therefore "in England".



At cross purposes

Sir: I find it astonishing that it's necessary to point out the difference between a cross and a crucifix. A cross, which is what the BA worker was wearing, is... well, a cross. A crucifix is, in the words of a jewellery shop assistant, a cross "with a little man on it". I had always believed the story of this shop assistant to be apocryphal, but now I'm not so sure.



A brain teaser

Sir: Previous correspondence has referred to Mark Hucknall's grading of sudoku puzzles as being somewhat arbitrary, but on Saturday (2 December) he excelled himself by grading the same puzzle as both intermediate and advanced! Still, most enjoyable, and sure to stave off senility by at least 10 minutes.



Top dog

Sir: "Watchdog fails to put bite on loan sharks", according a headline (1 December). I assume it was not a water spaniel.