Highlights from TED 2010, Wednesday: "We can eat to starve cancer"

Here's my round up of highlights from the first day of the TED presentations.


One of my favorite presentations of the day was by Dr. William Li, a cancer researcher from the Angiogenesis Foundation. Angiogenesis means the growth of blood vessels. Your body usually knows how to regulate the growth of blood vessels, but sometimes there are defects in blood growing and pruning. Too little angiogenesis can lead to things like wounds that won't heal, heart attack, and other diseases. Too much angiogenesis leads to other bad things such as blindness, arthritis. It's is a common denominator of many diseases. It's also the "hallmark of every type of cancer."

In autopsies of people who died in car accidents, doctors have found microscopic cancers in 40% of woman (breast) and 40% of men (prostate). Something like 70% of older people have microcancers in their thyroid. But the cancer is harmless -- "cancer without disease." If you block angiogenesis the cancer can't grow. "It's a tipping point between harmless cancer and deadly one."

Li showed a photo of a poor dog with gnarly tumor hanging off its side. The vet gave the dog three months to live. They started antiangiogenesis drugs. In a few weeks, the tumor shrank away completely. They also cured a dolphin of mouth cancer and saw a complete remission of a deadly lip cancer on a horse.

Today there 12 different antiangiogenesis drugs available for people and dogs. They are quite effective for many cancers, but not much for liver, lung, and breast cancers. The problem with these cancers is that by the time they are detected they have progressed too far for antiangiogenesis drugs to do their work.

The good news, Li says, is that "we eat to starve cancer." Lots of foods contain naturally occuring inhibitors of angiogenesis, and many are even better than drugs for blocking angiogenesis (see image above).

Angiogenesis also plays a huge role in obesity. "Adipose tissue is highly angiogenesis-dependent." You can cycle the weight of mice by inhibiting and promoting angiogenesis. "We can't create supermodel mice -- it takes them to normal weight."

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Daniel Kahneman at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Daniel Kahneman, the founder of behavioral-economics talked about the differences between "experience happiness" and "memory happiness." His presentation brought to mind the 1966 Philip K. Dick novelette, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (which was the basis for the not-so-good movie, Total Recall).

Kahneman started off by listing a number of baked-in "cognitive traps" people have that make it hard to think straight about happiness. Happiness is complex and confusing. People tend to think that having happy experiences in your life and being happy about your life are one and the same, but they are actually different. When your doctor asks you, "Does it hurt when I touch you here" she is asking your "experiencing self." When she asks, "How have you been feeling lately?" your "remembering self" answers.

Your remembering self is a "story teller. What we keep from our experiences is a story." To illustrate, Kahneman showed pain-over-time charts of two colonoscopy patients who reported the intensity of the pain they were experiencing each minute during a colonoscopy. One patient experienced severe pain for 10 minutes. The other experienced the same level of pain for 10 minutes, followed by gradually decreasing pain for an addition 10 minutes. When each patient was later asked to recall the experience, the first patient said his experience was more painful, even though he experienced less pain than the second patient. "The way that stories end matter." The first patient's pain was at its peak at the very end, so it made for a worse story.

Another example: you have great experience listening to music at a live performance. A loud screetch at the end ruins the memory of the experience.

A thought experiment: say you are about to take a vacation, but before you leave, you are told that all memory of the vacation will be wiped out as soon as you get home. Would you take the same vacation or take a different one? If you think you'd take a different one, your "experiencing self" and "remembering self" are not aligned.

Research concludes that "happiness is mainly being satisfied with being with people that we like."

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Jake Shimabukuro at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Ukulele Virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro got a standing ovation for his performance this morning, which included a masterful instrumental arrangement of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Quotes: "The ukulele is underdog of all instruments." "If everyone played ukulele, the world would be a better place." "What the world needs now is more ukulele." "Ukulele is the instrument of peace."

I interviewed Jake (and will post the interview soon) and he is extremely nice. If the uke made him that way we have an answer to all the world's problems.

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Michael Shermer at TED2010, Session 1, "Mindshift," Wednesday, February 10, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Michael Shermer showed a gadget a called the ADE651. It's a black box with an antenna. The manufacturer claims it can detect both bombs and drugs up to 1000 meters away. It sells for $40,000. The Iraqi government bought 800 of them. Shermer's friend James Randi says:

the ADE651 is a useless, quack, device which cannot perform any other function than separating naïve persons from their money. It's a fake, a scam, a swindle, and a blatant fraud. The manufacturers, distributors, vendors, advertisers, and retailers of the ADE651 device are criminals, liars, and thieves who will ignore this challenge because they know the device, the theory, the described principles of operation, and the technical descriptions given, are nonsense, lies, and fraudulent.

(Does that mean he doesn't like it?.)

Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and columnist for Scientific American. He talked about patternicity -- the evolved tendency for people to find patterns, even in meaningless noise, and agenticity -- the belief in souls, spirits, gods, ghosts, government conspirators, and aliens who more advanced than us, and are either coming to save us or enslave us. Even idea that the government can rescue us is a form of agenticity.

9/11 is a conspiracy (people planned the attack in secret), but truthers think it was an inside job by the Bush administration. "But we know that can't be true because it worked."