Five nights in Stanford

I’ve just returned from a mind-blowing trip to Stanford University, five days of back-to-back interviews with some of the most important figures in sleep research. It’ll all be in the book. This was made possible by a generous grant from The Society of Authors.

I got to meet William Dement, a legend in the field of sleep medicine and the reason why Stanford has such a high concentration of great doctors and researchers interested in sleep. I spent several delightful hours in the company of Christian Guilleminault, less well known than Dement but, in my view, an equal partner in the Stanford adventure.

Emmanuel Mignot (aka Dr Narcolepsy) gave me almost three hours of his time on President’s Day to talk through his work on the genetics and immunology of narcolepsy and more recent research on the genetics of Kleine-Levin Syndrome. He brought with him his dog Watson, a cute narcoleptic Chihuahua.

I met Samantha Lundquist, an animal behaviourist at the Penninsula Humane Society and owner of three huge dogs (one of them, Charlie, a narcoleptic). Neither dog experienced cataplexy in my company, which I was a little sad about, but I know better than anyone that cataplexy tends to come in the company of friends and not strangers.

I found out about some clever research that Jamie Zeitzer is involved with, using flashing lights to cause rapid shifts in the central circadian clock, which could be of immense benefit for shift-workers and would solve the problem of jetlag overnight. Quite literally.

I had an incredibly exciting time with Luis de Lecea, who was one of the researchers who first described hypocretins almost 20 years ago. He is using optogenetics and mice to understand the hypocretin pathway (and other neural networks). As a consequence he probably knows more about the myriad functions of this powerful neuromodulator than anyone alive. I was anxious that I would come out of this interview more confused than I went in (because the brain is so fiendishly complex) but I now have a very clear idea of the main functions that hypocretin performs, an insight that helps explain much about the narcoleptic condition (caused, of course, by a failure of the hypocretin system).

Using similarly cutting edge methods, Philippe Mourrain made a compelling case for using a simple animal model like the zebrafish to unpick the circuitry underlying sleep (rather than a crazily complex species like Homo sapiens). By tagging neurons with green fluorescent protein and because zebrafish larvae are transparent, it’s possible to see neurons firing in real time in a live animal in parts of the brain that in humans are buried far beneath the thick cortical surface. Yes, although fishes don’t close their eyes (they have no eyelids), they do sleep. They also have what looks like a rapid eye movement phase, except that Mourrain doesn’t like to call it REM because there’s no movement of the eyes. He prefers paradoxical sleep.

I also attended a lecture, part of the famous Sleep and Dreams course that Dement began at Stanford more than 40 years ago. Meir Kryger, who I’ve already interviewed about sleep apnea, was over from Yale University and spoke about the dangers of sleep deprivation and it’s implications for individuals and society.

All I have to do now is to get hours of interviews transcribed and written up while it’s still fresh. Gulp!

Lonesome George is back in Galapagos

Lonesome George,  (c) Henry Nicholls

Lonesome George the giant tortoise, the last individual of his species, has returned to Galapagos after an absence of almost five years. Following his unexpected death in 2012, the Galapagos National Park agreed to send him to a top-end taxidermist in New York. After painstaking treatment, George went on show at the American Museum of Natural History in 2014. He is now back in Galapagos, the centerpiece of a new exhibition aimed at visitors to the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz.

By the time I met Lonesome George during my first visit to Galapagos in 2003, he had become the face of extinction. I read the information panel around his enclosure: “Whatever happens to this animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things is in human hands.” I was not, however, overly impressed with this shy, retiring reptile and had no idea it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Back at home in the UK, George’s influence on me started to grow. At the start of a career as a science journalist, I wrote about him, first a feature in Nature, then a popular science book called Lonesome George, until hardly a month would pass without me being called to comment on some aspect of his life. I should have become accustomed to George’s capacity to generate news, but every time he impressed me. There is no individual – animal or human – that could communicate the conservation message quite like George.

I love it that he’s still up to his old tricks, even in death. See also my Guardian blog Animal Magic.

Victory for Pandemrix victims and common sense

Finally. A victory for common sense. The Court of Appeal in the UK has ruled against the Department for Work and Pensions in favour of a boy who developed narcolepsy at the age of seven following vaccination with GSK’s swine flu vaccine Pandemrix in 2009. This judgment has significant implications for other Pandemrix children and their families.

The link between Pandemrix and narcolepsy in children began to emerge in the summer of 2010, with epidemiologists subsequently providing compelling evidence of a causal link. The child in this case – John, now 14-years-old – is just one of many to have applied to the DWP for compensation under the Vaccine Damage Act 1979, but his story reveals just how difficult it has been for Pandemrix victims to be taken seriously and just how ignorant otherwise intelligent people still are about what it’s like to live with narcolepsy.

Initially, the DWP denied John compensation, arguing that his disability was not sufficiently severe. John appealed to the First Tier Tribunal and won. The DWP appealed the First Tier Tribunal’s decision to the Upper Tribunal, now claiming that the judgment should be made solely on current disability rather than taking future disability into account. When this was rejected, the DWP had to pay out the one-off sum of £120,000, but made another effort to reverse the decision at the Court of Appeal. All this appealing is unappealing. Today, they lost.

“This important decision brings clarity to anyone who brings claims under the Vaccine Damage Payment Act in future,” the boy’s solicitor Peter Todd of Hodge, Jones & Allen said in a statement. “It will in particular bring welcome relief to those who developed narcolepsy as a result of taking the swine flu vaccination and who have been awaiting payment from the DWP scheme, but also has implications for anyone affected by other vaccines covered by the scheme.”

There are currently around 100 children in the UK identified as having developed narcolepsy following vaccination with Pandemrix.

The benefits of vaccination to society are beyond question. But when there are adverse reactions, they hit individuals and not society. In these rare cases, it seems only right that the government of the day should be supporting those affected in whatever way they can. It saddens me that the default position here seems to have been to argue that narcolepsy is not particularly disabling and that its impact on future life can be dismissed.

I have had narcolepsy for over 20 years and know these two assertions to be false. I am almost finished with my book on narcolepsy, sleep and sleep disorders, which I hope will help raise awareness of what it’s really like to live with this devastating neurological disorder. Stay tuned.

For more information on narcolepsy, please visit Narcolepsy UK.

Tian Tian, maybe definitely not

It is now virtually certain that Tian Tian, the female giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo, is no longer pregnant.

Tian Tian panda by Chris Keating on Henry Nicholls website
Image credit: Chris Keating/The Land via wikicommons

Following artificial insemination in April, the zoo has been tracking Tian Tian’s hormone levels. The one to watch is progesterone. At around the time of ovulation, there is a small rise, with levels remaining roughly constant for several months. At this stage, the embryo is fertilized but is not developing. Then, some 60 to 100 days later, progesterone levels jump again from around 250 ng to 2500 ng (per gram of faeces) and the embryo begins to divide. In a press release, tantalizing entitled “Panda update: definitely maybe!”, Edinburgh Zoo told us that this second rise occurred on 15 July.

According to the latest study of pandas whose pregnancies went to term, a female will give birth, on average, 38.8 days later. There is a large variation though, with the swiftest female giving birth just 26 days after the jump in progesterone and the slowest  female 55 days after. If Tian Tian were on the pacey side, she’d have dropped a month ago on 10 August. Even if she were more ponderous, she’d have given birth by now. She has not.

On Friday, Edinburgh Zoo’s chief executive issued a blog post that talked of “a flurry of new births” but made no mention – not even in passing – of Tian Tian’s pregnancy. Today, after much badgering, the zoo finally issued a brief update, saying that “we’re not out of the game.” It goes on:

We are continually analysing hormone and protein samples and, based on the latest results, our external experts now believe Tian Tian may have experienced her secondary progesterone spike two weeks later than the results previously available suggested.

I’m a journalist not a panda biologist, but looking at the graphs of what progesterone does in a pregnant panda, it is somewhat baffling that the zoo could have mis-identified such a massive change in progesterone. They do say that “Tian Tian is a panda whose behaviour and physiology appears to be more complicated than most!”

I suppose it’s possible that she’s still pregnant. Or, more likely I’m afraid, she’s not.

Lonesome George has relatives

Lonesome George might be have passed away but he’s still making the news. Less than six months after his death, with his carapace still interred in a Galapagos freezer, it appears he may not have been the last of his kind after all. There is now clear evidence of giant tortoises with Pinta ancestry on another island in the archipelago.

In a forthcoming study, geneticists from Yale University identify 17 hybrid tortoises with various combinations of Pinta genes on the nearby island of Isabela. The existence of these Pinta-like tortoises came to light by chance when an initial sample of 27 tortoises from Isabela’s northernmost volcano Wolf turned up a youthful male with some unusual genes. This animal – officially dubbed PBR03 –appeared to be a first generation hybrid between a full-blown Pinta male and an Isabela female. “Lonesome George is not alone among Galapagos tortoises”, the geneticists reported in Current Biology back in 2007. Since then, they have worked hard to expand on this initial finding.

Within a couple of years, they were able to return to Isabela, the Galapagos National Park mounting a huge expedition to extract blood from as many of Wolf Volcano’s tortoises as possible. The geneticists came away with samples from more than 1660 tortoises. Earlier this year, the Yale team demonstrated that some of these tortoises had signs of Floreana ancestry, another species thought to have disappeared in the mid-19th century. In Table S1, buried in the supplemental information for the paper, they reported a cluster of seven tortoises with a strong affinity to the Pinta species.

The forthcoming paper, due to be published in Biological Conservation, extends this number to 17 individuals. Four of these look like they are first generation hybrids (F1), with one or other of their parents being of full Pinta stock. The rest seem to be second-generation (F2) hybrids. Several of the Pinta-like tortoises appear to be siblings, which seems reasonable for a species that lays clutches of up to 20 eggs at a time. Given that the sampling may only have captured around 1/5th of the tortoises roaming on Wolf Voclano’s inhospitable flanks, the geneticists extrapolate to estimate there could be some 60 to 70 Chelonoidis abingdoni hybrids yet to be discovered. As five of the 17 tortoises are juveniles less than 20-years-old, it is also possible that there is still a purebred Pinta tortoise out there and breeding. If there are, however, the geneticists have not yet stumbled upon them. The hybrids they have come across are only known from their blood. The actual animals still roam free. But there is a plan afoot to go and get them.

“Our goal is to go back this spring to look for surviving individuals of this species and to collect hybrids,” says Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, senior author on the study, in a Yale University press release. “We hope that with a selective breeding program, we can reintroduce this tortoise species to its native home.” Interestingly, the 17 hybrids are not randomly distributed but are most concentrated on the southwestern flanks of the volcano. The proximity of this location to Bank’s Cove – a popular watering hole for whalers and sealers – leads the authors to speculate that humans were responsible for the introduction of Pinta tortoises to Isabela some time during the last few centuries.

As incredible as this sounds, the alternative – that the tortoises got there by natural means – is less likely still. Although the islands are just 37 miles apart, any tortoise entering the sea from Pinta would be carried away from Isabela on prevailing northwesterly currents. Even if, by some freak means, a tortoise had floated southwest from Pinta to Isabela, its descendants would be located on the northern and not southwestern side of the volcano.

This important map should help the Galapagos National Park and Yale University geneticists as they attempt to relocate these hybrids for the purposes of captive breeding. I’d have liked to have seen George nonplus these relatives. That would have been entirely in keeping with his character. With his death on 24 June this year, this is a reunion that sadly can not take place.

Lonesome George and the late Lord Devon’s helmet

On Monday, when news of Lonesome George’s death began to reach editors around the world, I was asked to write his obituary for the Guardian. As I had already sent in one to Nature, they sensibly got the very excellent John Vidal to do it instead.

John’s done a pretty good job and he generously cites my book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon. I was, however, very puzzled to read that I’d reported that “George was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise.” I’ve never reported anything of the sort.

What I think has happened here is that in researching his piece Vidal came across a rather lovely article about Lonesome George and my book that appeared in the Daily Mail in 2007. It is particularly nice because it’s by Rory Knight Bruce, who declares his interest in tortoises as the author of Timothy The Tortoise: The Remarkable Story Of The Nation’s Oldest Pet. His book, Bruce explains, “recounts the life and times of the tortoise who lived at Powderham Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Devon, until his death in 2004 at the grand old age of 164.” The Daily Mail article draws on the similarities between the reptilian subjects of our respective testudinate biographies and his last sentence notes that Timothy, like George, did not mate “unless you accept his attempts to mount the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet.”

I understand that this kind of mistake is inevitable in a busy news room, though I am a little puzzled Vidal was not himself more puzzled that the late Lord Devon’s helmet should have found its way over to Galapagos and into Lonesome George’s enclosure. I thought about emailing the Guardian to get it corrected. Then I thought it’s such an irrelevant detail I wouldn’t bother. But here’s what happens in the internet age if you don’t get stuff like this put right. It gets picked up, replicated and in the replication acquires a new life, gravitas and authority.

I think I’d better let the Guardian know.