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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Report from the LI Conference, part 1

So what is a state of the science conference? I didn't know what to expect.

I've been to - and delivered papers at - large academic conferences. Those are like airports. You get bunches of people coming together in one place for the purpose of going off in random directions. (There is little that's more random than a collection of papers read at the Popular Culture Association conference.) The papers are all on new research, have nothing to do with one another, and are declaimed to small segments of the audience, with no questioning afterward.

At the other end of the spectrum, I've read a lot about scientific gatherings in which the twenty experts in the field of gyrocentric quantum alluvial mastodon theory get together to announce a breakthrough in the timing of Ur-bottle capacitors, devolving into a shouting match between the proponents of cylindrical constructs and the devotees of conical containers.

A state of the science conference fell somewhere in between, although with a z-axis that made it distinct. That third dimension is what is sometimes called meta-analysis. The specialists gathered were not there to present new research - no "dose 20 people with lactose and see what happens" - but to scour the existing academic and medical research, as well as clinical practice, and try to present a picture of what we know and what we do at the current time. The hope is that by taking this comprehensive overlook at today, what is needed to do to improve the medical advice for tomorrow will become more apparent.

To do that, the presenters have a target audience, a panel, made up of knowledgeable experts who nonetheless "have no financial or other conflicts of interest pertaining to the topic under consideration." This isn't easy to do. In a small field like lactose intolerance, it's likely that any expert will be a consultant to various companies, either pharmaceutical firms or product manufacturers, get grant funding from such companies, or at least get paid to speak at various events.

There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Although I've never received money from anyone, I've consulted on brochures about lactose intolerance for the American Dietetic Association and the Wegman's supermarket chain. Lending whatever expertise I've gained and spreading proper facts and information is my purpose.

Sometimes consulting looks bad. And sometimes consulting really is bad. When research gets changed, buried, rewritten, reinterpreted, or propagandized because of these ties scandals occur and the faith of the public in science is damaged.

There's no reason to think that anything of that sort took place in this conference, but position papers put out by the government are likely to take that extra step of ensuring that a completely unimpeachable layer of bodies is put in between the presentations and final result. So it's the panel who writes the statement that goes out to the public and the scientific community, not the presenters.

After the presenters and panel, a third group is also invited. Since the conference was free and open to the public, anyone interested in lactose intolerance could show up.

The result was as close to an all-star gala as the field can see. The conference was in the memory of Dr. Norman Kretchmer, the grand old man of lactose intolerance, whose article in Scientific American in 1970 brought lactose intolerance to public attention for the first time. Presenters included Dr. Michael Levitt and others whose research I've cited in my books. The audience featured that ball of energy named Alan Kligerman, the man who founded Lactaid and brought lactase pills and lactose-reduced milk to this country. Though he sold off Lactaid may years ago, he still runs AKPharma, maker of Catsip, the real milk, low-lactose product that is the only kind of milk you should serve your pets, who are all lactose intolerant. At lunchtime, he was pounced upon by what turned out to be a large contingent from Lactaid. I was lucky enough to have lunch with them, and they promised me the latest news about Lactaid's activities. I also ran into Andrew Ritter, the founder of Ritter Pharmaceuticals, and inventor of Lactagen. The room was also filled (OK, not filled: scattered among a sea of empty seats) with dietitians, clinicians, and nurses, a sampling of how many different areas of life lactose intolerance touches.

Here's the full listing of speakers and their paper topics. As you can see, after every few presentations, a discussion period followed during which the panel could ask any questions they pleased and so could the audience if any time remained. Time always did and the audience was a major participant.

Tomorrow I'll get into the papers themselves and give you a look inside the workings of the field.

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1 comment:

Amélie said...

I'm curious as to your feelings towards Lactagen. Can there really be a cure for lactose intolerance? Or is it perhaps a way to cure some cases of secondary lactose intolerance, as opposed to primary? Does it really work?