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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Setting a thief to catch a thief

I've been seriously busy, so here's a piece I prepared earlier.


When I was overseas ten years back, I had fun, but I was also working — gathering information for writing projects in hand, but I ended up in London the day that England was eliminated from the World Cup. It was a hot day, I was in Earl's Court in a pub with a stuffed kangaroo, and firm intentions of making the British Library on the Monday. I never made it, but that was another story.

Sunday, though, was a different matter, and I met both my goals. I had some unfinished business in Chelsea, left over from 1993. Then, I had failed to see inside Carlyle's house or the Chelsea Physic Garden, though I found a rare statue of William Huskisson, the first man to be run over by a train. So I went back to Chelsea, knowing that this time I would see all three — if I could find Mr. Huskisson.

I took off across-country (as much as one can in built-up London), passing Chelsea Pensioners and other curiosities, following a set of signs to Carlyle's House that were surely created to confuse potential German paratroopers in World War II, but I eventually got there, just after they opened.

I told the lady I wanted to see the chair, assuming she would know that I mean the one that Jenny sat in before jumping up to kiss Leigh Hunt. If that means nothing, it's a reference to a poem that Leigh Hunt wrote:

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.

Apparently only a few people recall the story, but the guardian knew it, and we admired the chair, which regrettably, I could not photograph, due to some grotesque administrator with mad notions about copyright. I looked around, recalled the venomous comment that "it was good of God to allow Mr and Mrs Carlyle to marry, thus making only two people unhappy, not four" and chided myself for recollecting it.

Then I took me off to the Chelsea Physic Garden (http://www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/) which was created as a place where doctors and others (physicians as they were dubbed then) could come to see the plants that were of known or assumed medicinal value.

After hearing an interview that Robyn Williams played on ABC Radio National's The Science Show, I knew that there were some beds of poisonous plants, and I had a professional interest in those.

Poison is a funny thing: people are scared of it, and when I say I am interested in poisons, people look at me oddly. I feel a bit like Jo in Little Women, whose enthusiasms led her into deep waters:

"Eager to find material for stories, and bent on making them original in plot, if not masterly in execution, she searched newspapers for accidents, incidents, and crimes. She excited the suspicions of public librarians by asking for works on poisons."

Jo, of course, is a slightly disguised Louisa May Alcott, so it probably happened just as she said — I can certainly believe it. But like Jo, my interest is benign, because I am interested in the good poisons, like antibiotics, disinfectants and other medical objects that are more lethal to the bugs than they are to us.

So I rolled into the garden, looked at the map, and asked where the poison beds were. I got one of those looks, until I explained that I am an Australian botanist who writes (among other things) about poisons. The guide took her finger off the panic button, and showed me where to find the carefully unmarked bed.

It was pretty standard fare, but I went away satisfied, having seen a couple of plants in the flesh, as it were, that I had only known from illustrations, as well as nodding to quite a few old friends.

The point (which I always get to) was that I know and knew that poisons are used to fight many things. I know also that sterile maggots are sometimes used to clean up necrotic tissue around wounds, and that we use leeches still. I have even heard of people taking worms to treat Crohn's disease, and I know about a 19th century man who used bacteria against cancer — I will get to him some other time.

Most of the 19th century pharmacopoeia contained mercury, arsenic or some other virulent element, and even today, most medicines are dangerous in large doses (mind you, 200 kg of potatoes or a hundred cups of coffee will also kill you — they key is the dosage).

But people taking bacteria to eliminate parasites sounded like a new one, so when I heard about this, I went burrowing. And found the lead was a bit wrong. My informant had also missed that the bacterium is one that is well-known around the traps, because a toxin from the bacterium is used in many pest-resistant plant species, like GM cotton.

According to a report a few years back in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (I never throw old notes away), bacterial proteins were being used to counteract hookworm. A protein produced by the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, given orally to laboratory hamsters infected with hookworms was as effective in eliminating the parasites, curing anaemia and restoring weight gain in the hamsters as one of the drugs currently recommended to treat infections in humans.

The protein, called Cry5B, targets both developing, or larval, stages and adult parasites, as well as impairs the excretion of eggs by female worms, said the researchers at Yale and UCSD.

I call it nifty.

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