I heart Abbie Smith (ERV)

Update: There are/were TWO Abbie Smith’s at OU (which would be a good name for a band, BTW). I met the Exercise Physiologist Abbie Smith in 2007, and I follow the blog of the brunette Abbie Smith, ERV. That explains a LOT of things that were bugging me, like hair color and research fields. Perhaps I should just say “I heart ERV”, because she (brunette Abbie) is awesome.

I met Abbie Smith at University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK back in 2007. She was a young grad student in the Kerksick lab* and I was there to help them kick-start a molecular biology/real-time PCR program for their work in exercise physiology. She impressed me then, and she impresses me now. The fact that she’s taken up virology, science advocacy, and blogging is icing on the cake. Her blog is here, called ERV. I highly recommend you check it out. She has a quirky, dry humor that I love and her passion for her topic shows through her writing.

Here she is, recently debating Dr. Steve Kern on creationism being taught in the public schools at Oklahoma City Community College:

You have to love the energy, the enthusiasm, and the down-to-earth discussion of why creationism/evolution discussion matters.

*As an aside, Chad Kerksick was recently the subject of a news report by the Huffington Post on his use of grad students as medical guinea pigs. As I recall, many of the grad students submitted “muscle cores”, which are small tubular chunks of muscle tissue removed from the thigh using a device very similar to a large-bore syringe needle. I’m sure it’s quite unpleasant and leaves some bruising, but I’m not sure I understand how that was a violation of an ethical code (UPDATE:  more in separate post!). Researchers are often used for control samples. For example, I submitted 40 mL of blood almost every week for months as a control sample in immune profiling. The con was it made me a little woozy for a while and I hate needles. The plus was a small donor fee ($40) and the fact that I now know more about my immune profile (I walk around with a subclinical monocytosis), I could detect when I was about to get sick, and it helped out the progress of our study. I don’t know enough about Chad’s situation to condemn or condone, but he was a very nice guy in my interactions with him.

24 comments on “I heart Abbie Smith (ERV)

  1. I get that she is really enthusiastic about her area of research but why does she have to give so much information that is factually wrong? I mean isn’t that exactly the objection that the creationist guy speaking in the video was raising? That ” many people admit that much of the information that is given is wrong, but it doesn’t matter as long as it gets the idea across”.
    I am just going highlight this using one blatant example how she gives factually wrong information throughout her video. She says at 29:11 “we got drugs we give to HL patients which silence this virus and stops the growth of the tumor”.
    This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, the causal link between the ERV and Hodgkin’s lymphoma (HL) is very controversial. Second, the only drug (sofarenib) which can be used to silence the protein produced by the ERV (CSF1r) has only been tested in vitro on Hodgkin lymphona cell lines, and has never even been given to a single patient with Hodgkin lymphoma. It hasn’t even been tested in animals with respect to HL. Third, it is unknown whether this drug (sofarenib) inhibits HL cell line growth via silencing the ERV or inhibiting another enzyme which is very important for tumor growth (tyrosine kinase).
    So basically, her statement is completely wrong. Her video is also filled with many similar instances where she gives information which is misleading which obviously her creationist opponent will not notice. I wish she would either try doing better research or stop giving info that is wrong. Because scientists should be binded by ethics when speaking to the general public, and one crucial part of those ethics is to not give overzealous information which results in an unrealistic view of science by the public.

  2. Great video, it’s always interesting to watch debates about this subject, but as well-educated and a good speaker Abbie is, she didn’t exactly do this debate quite well. Those who enters into these debates, should have far broader knowledge of both creationist questions(claims and other things you have to respond to) and the answers to them, and follow up comments if they try to get back at you.

    I would have loved to see a person like AronRa take this guy on, because he knows about ERV’s, and while he might not have been able to talk that much about the research, lymphoma, hodgkins and so on, he would have known how to set it better up, so Kern understood the challenge, so he could get stumbed. Because Kern thought you were talking about the vira themselves evolving. And he could have brought a lot of transitional fossils along and making this guy so butthurt he wouldn’t be able to sit down the next month.

    Honestly, it’s great you take the initiative Abbie, but you should also spend a little time reading creation/evolution debate on the internet, if you’re going to do this stuff again.

    • Dennis, with respect to this being a ‘debate’, it wasn’t. Abbie has no interest in debates. As she said beforehand, this is science outreach and Kern is just bait. If he’s shit bait, then so be it.

      Dennis, it’s great that you take the initiative to address Abbie (but not on her blog for some reason?) while remaining perfectly ignorant of what it is she sought to do in the first place. You should spend a little time learning about speakers’ motivations for appearing in public before faux reprimanding them for executing poorly–what you’ve only invented in your head as being–their goal if you’re going to do so again.

      Do tell me, please, what sequence of fossils do you imagine AronRa would bring with him to show the ‘vira themselves’ evolving?

      5ecular4umanist below has about the gist of it. Abbie is more than fully capable of immediately launching into a lecture or academic debate, like when she bitch-slapped Michael Behe around on his stupid writings about HIV, PZ Myers on his speech about ERVs GAG and POL, brought down the Judy Mikovits XMRV fraud and consequent double retraction in Science. But the audience wasn’t an academic one, and she’s interested in talking to people, not talking at people.

      Hayden misses the point. She did address the ‘missing fossils’ bit by pointing out that viruses don’t fossilize, but the genetic residue is in effect a security tape one can watch. And then she explained the insertion events and how that the same defect contained at the same locus indicates a single insertion event, and that its appearance is traceable back to the last recent ancestor which shares it, and, of course, all of its progeny. One’s failure to understand that this addresses the point (and note the topic wasn’t that fossils have gaps; it was on whether creationism should be taught in schools and whether evolution is science) is no argument that she failed to address Kern’s point.

  3. Speaking as someone with zero formal education in virology, I’d just like to put my views on the debate taking place elsewhere in these comments over what Abbie should or should not have included in her presentation at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention (see Abbie’s link, above).

    You have to consider the audience. Most would, like me, not have had the background knowledge to follow a detailed presentation of the subject. There were one or two Abbie’s slides that showed more detail and, frankly, they could have been a message from the Jovians for all I could tell.

    Abbie wasn’t giving a lecture to university students. To me (as a typical audience member), the level of detail was about right and to attempt to include more would have not have worked.

  4. I wish she would have actually addressed the “where are the intermediates” garbage. He was asking about the fossil record, and she kept talking about viruses. I know viruses are her area of expertise, but she didn’t effectively address his question.

    On the other hand, the idea of ERVs flew entirely over his head.

    • I felt the same at one stage (I almost stopped watching), frustrated that Abbey didn’t seem to be addressing Kern’s “missing transitionals” question. The same on old “loss of information / entropy”. That said, I think she did the right thing, sticking to her area of expertise. It threw Kern, I think, because Creationists haven’t dreamt up an ID response to the ERV evidence.

    • Hayden!

      The fossil thing is just so far outside of my natural realm, I couldnt address it properly without looking like a fool myself. If it makes you feel better, there were *several* biologists in the audience who *were* capable of addressing the fossil record competently in the audience. They confronted him right after the debate… and got nowhere.

      Honestly, I hadnt expected him to make any of the old-school YEC comments he made that night (eg no transitional fossils). The Discovery Institute has been very active in OK recently (apparently some moneybags is feeding them, so they periodically fly down to give a dog&pony show) so I was assuming the DI would feed him lines. The DI mainly focuses on molecular biology, so thats what I was prepared for. I simply wasnt prepared for a question about fossils or carbon dating.

  5. Thanks for this. I hadn’t seen the ERV blog until now. Watched the Smth vs. Kern debate and Q&A. You’re right. Abbie Smith is great :)

      • Watched. Liked :) Thank you.

        Can you answer one question for me (everything else was crystal-clear):
        In the evolution of immunity, with random mutation and natural selection, what is the survival advantage of a more effective variant? What makes the “better” variants live on, while the less effective ones die off? Thanks.

        • I have only gotten to the 9:58 point and I have skipped the first 6 minutes but I can aleady see a couple of things really wrong with this presentation. Isn’t evolution defined as a change in allele frequencies in a population over time? And don’t the antibody regions such as those coding for the heavy chain and especially the hypervariable region undergo somatic hypermutation which produces T cells and B cells which are selected for in the thymus and the bone marrow? If so, that is not evolution, because there is no change in allele frequencies in a population over time. Since the germ cells are protected by the blood testis barrier, wouldn’t that mean there is no change in allele frequencies in a population over time, therefore no evolution?

        • at the 17:14 mark she refers to somatic hypermutation as evolution. LOL!
          Since vaccines stimulate somatic hypermutation and the selection of B and T cells without affecting the germs cells clearly that is not a change in allele frequencies in a population over time (evolution).

          Also at the 24 mark she talks about how not everyone who gets a vaccine has an effective immune response, and then she says we don’t know how has and who doesn’t, when clearly she is wrong. For instance in hep. B vaccination we can check for IgG antibody levels after vaccination to see if the person getting the vaccine has an effective response.

        • Jason, I dont think you are understanding my angle.

          How your immune system learns to counter pathogens/tumors/etc is evolution on a tiny scale, I jokingly call picoevolution. do not mean ‘your mom made antibodies to a variant of influenza, thus you were born with lifelong immunity to that variant of influenza’.

          What goes on after exposure (mutation, natural selection, competition for survival) is most definitely the process of evolution within your immune system. There *is* a change in allele frequencies over time in the B- and T-cell population of that individual after exposure to a vaccine/pathogen/tumor/etc. Saying ‘That doesnt count as evolution because it doesnt get passed down to babby!’ is being silly.

          And you also dont understand what I meant by ‘some people respond well to a vaccine and some dont and we dont know why’. Yes, you can do IgG tests. But you still will not know *why* one individual responded well, and why one did not (or, why someone responded well to Vaccine #1, but not Vaccine #2). You cannot predict before you give someone a vaccination whether they will respond well, outside of gross statistics.

          Relax, dude!

        • True, ERV. The alleles that are changing are the T cell receptor and variable parts of an immunoglobulin. They are heritable changes, viewed from the perspective of cell lineages. They become extinct, they diversify, and they are affected by selection.

        • At 32:16 “my totally non MD advice….. is to get your vaccines and booster shots right before getting pregnant”

          LOL!!!!! I hope nobody takes her “non-MD advice”!!!!!!!
          Because all live attenuated vaccines (BCG, polio, chicken pox, etc…..) are contraindicted 1 month before getting pregnant until postpartum. LOL!!! I thought her specialty was vaccines and viral infections.

        • At the 38:58 mark “if these retroviruses weren’t junk they would cause AIDS and cancer……”

          LOL!!!!!! She must have missed the research that showed that members of a human endogenous retrovirus class (HERV-K) is involved in producing proteins which probably help human placental trophoblastic cells fuse and attenuate the immunoresponse from the mother to the fetus. Also the claim that if a retrovirus is not junk it would cause AIDS or cancer is really really silly!!!!
          Also not 50% of the human genome is retroviral. It’s closer to 8%, the rest of the “junk” DNA is retrotransposons, ncRNA and repeating elements.
          Maybe Abbie Smith should tryto give more factual information and less unbridled enthusiasm!!!

        • HERV-K can be “neofunctionalized”, given a new application for an old sequence. The fact that this previously non-coding sequence is of viral origin is inconsequential. However, members of that family are strongly implicated in testicular germ cell tumor evasion and progression (Retrovirology. 2009 Feb 16;6:17.). There’s also some evidence of its role in chronic myeloid leukemia (Leuk Lymphoma. 1993;11 Suppl 1:119-23.)

          That’s the virus acting like a virus. Driving the expression of whatever sequence its promoter is plopped down next to. Sometimes it causes new functions, but mostly it causes cancer and other disease.

          I can speak from some very recent lab research that the L1 mobile element is at least 30% of your genome. In fact, there are 25 copies of L1 for every one gene in your genome. Fifty percent seems about right to me for the portion of your genome that has a viral origin.

        • Ok, I see how she was using evolution in a colloquial sense as opposed to its strictly defined scientific meaning, and whether 50% of the genome is retroviral is a minor quip.
          My main issue is that I think she fails to present both sides of the debate, which seems to be stemming directly from the fact that she speaks at politically charged convention. It seems to me science should be objective, and not clouded by political agenda. She says:

          a. it is impossible to tell who will and who won’t have an effective immune response to a vaccine. So she is basically saying that I can’t tell that a someone with DiGeorge’s syndrome, SCIDS, protein malnutrition, on high dose corticosteroids or any other type of defect in immunity probably won’t have an effective response to vaccines. Besides that, determining HLA allotypes can also predict beforehand who has effective and non-effective response (see: Poland et al, HLA-B7 and B51 were associated with vaccine hyperresponse, and HLA-B8, B13, B44, and C5 were associated with non-response). Lastly, like I said, we also determine IgG titers afterwards.

          b. at one point she mentions that since the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine, deaths from chickenpox complications have fallen from 103 to 3. Yet, she fails to mention that the rates of herpes zoster has increased in adults as a direct consequence of chickenpox vaccination, and any decrease in chickenpox deaths are offset by increasing incidence of mortality from herpes zoster. Now getting herpes zoster is a lot worse by all objective measures then getting chickenpox.

          c. this issue is very much within the realm of bioethics, yet she fails to mention many of the ethical contras of mass vaccination of the general population, and instead focuses solely on the pros.

    • As far as presentations go, I can do better– that 5 minute time limit for that segment killed me. But in real presentations where I have time to explain things better, yes, children totally get it :)

      (a 14 year old in the audience ‘got it’, but I think she would be mad if I described her as a ‘child’ hehehe!)

  6. LOL! Oh noooooo! Wrong Abbie Smith :)

    Its a REALLY LONG STORY, but me and The Other Abbie Smith actually have a very long history (we went to the same college for undergrad, AND the same college for grad school). If you ask her, Im sure she has some horror stories of being mistaken for me, as I get her fan mail all the time, so I know she must be getting my hate mail! Im sure she hates me!!

    Glad you liked the video, though! LOL!!!

    – The Evil Brunette Virologist Abbie Smith, not theSweet Blonde Physiologist Abbie Smith

    • *laugh*. That explains a lot. What are the odds? Will amend the post. I do love your blog.

      I’ll have to post about the time I spent two months trying to design a clinical diagnostic assay to detect XMRV for real-time PCR. We kept getting wrong products from prostate cancer cell lines, but the mouse control worked perfectly every time.

      Two months spent assuming we had the wrong primers, degraded or inhibited samples, never questioning that it existed in human cell lines. Bleah!

  7. Wow, Abbie’s impressive. Quick witted, knowledgeable, good sense of humour, attractive. The polar opposite of Kern. Then again, Kern did claim that what he’s concerned with is “THE TRUTH!!”, so, that must be right.

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