USFDA approves breakthrough drug for hepatitis C.

The nod represents a significant shift in treatment paradigm

The U.S. has approved a breakthrough therapy for treatment of chronic hepatitis C that is expected to offer a more palatable cure to millions of people infected with the liver-destroying viral disease.

Approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the pill, Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) is the first drug that has demonstrated safety and efficacy to treat certain types of HCV infection without the need for co-administration of interferon, an official announcement said on Friday.

“Today’s (Friday’s) approval represents a significant shift in the treatment paradigm for some patients with chronic hepatitis C,” said Edward Cox, director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

Sovaldi is the second drug approved by the FDA in the past two weeks to treat chronic HCV (hepatitis C virus) infection.

On November 22, the FDA had approved Olysio (simeprevir).

Sovaldi is marketed by Gilead, based in Foster City, California. Olysio is marketed by Raritan, New Jersey-based Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Clinical trials

The FDA said Sovaldi’s effectiveness was evaluated in six clinical trials consisting of 1,947 participants, who had not previously received treatment for their disease (treatment-naive) or had not responded to previous treatment (treatment-experienced), including participants co-infected with HCV and HIV.

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that causes inflammation of the liver that can lead to diminished liver function or liver failure.

About 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CNN said.


Symptoms may include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, dark urine, clay—coloured bowel movements, joint pain and jaundice, according to the CDC.

The once-a-day pill is the first approved to treat certain types of hepatitis C infection without the need for interferon, an injected drug that can cause severe flu-like symptoms. Hepatitis C, which is often undiagnosed, affects about 3.2 million Americans, killing more than 15,000 each year, mostly from illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Most patients will be treated with the $1,000-a-day drug for 12 weeks, resulting in a total list price of $84,000, according to Gilead spokeswoman Cara Miller.

Last year, the CDC recommended that all baby boomers, born from 1945 to 1965, be tested for the virus. Introduction of blood and organ screening in the 1990s has dramatically lowered infection rates for younger generations.

The Gilead drug’s approval was supported by several studies showing that it helped to eradicate the virus in significantly more patients, with fewer side effects, than the current drug regimen.

Sovaldi is the first in a new class of medications known as nucleotide analogue inhibitors, or “nukes,” designed to block a specific protein that the hepatitis C virus needs to copy itself.

Top 10 martial arts movies


10. Once Upon a Time in China

The film that kick-started Hong Kong cinema‘s kung-fu renaissance and launched Jet Li towards a future of substandard western action movies. Its subject was already well known to local audiences: Wong Fei-hung was a real person: a turn-of-the-century martial arts master and healer who’s become something of a folk hero. Like Sherlock Holmes or Robin Hood, he’d been portrayed many times before. Jackie Chan played him in Drunken Master, and a long-running Wong Fei-hung film series during the 1950s and 60s gave roles to the fathers of Bruce Lee and Yuen Wo-ping, among many others.

Transposed to 1990s Hong Kong, with the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty on the horizon, this story of a Chinese rebel fighting oppressive colonialist powers had extra resonance. Its British and American baddies are cartoonishly demonised, and the plot is often convoluted to the point of impenetrability, admittedly, but what this film chiefly provides is dazzling, colourful, kinetic, epic, pre-CGI spectacle. Director Tsui Hark, schooled in both the US and Hong Kong, fills the screen with movement and energy. The wire-assisted fight scenes – choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping, inevitably – are ingeniously staged. Earthbound reality is left far behind.

And Li is simply incredible. He’s got gravitas as an actor, but when he’s in action, he really takes some beating. He does it all: fighting with hands, feet, sticks, poles, umbrellas. He kills one baddie with a bullet – without using a gun. But Li is a gymnast, too, pirouetting and somersaulting across the screen with the agility of a cat. He’s surely the most graceful martial artist out there. Those skills come to bear in a jubilantly athletic final duel, which takes place in a warehouse conveniently full of bamboo ladders. It’s one of the most celebrated sequences in martial arts movies, and it leaves you wanting more, of which there is plenty: they made four sequels in the next two years. Steve Rose

9. Yojimibo

Yojimbo film stillAkira Kurosawa drew upon American pulp sources for Yojimbo’s plot, principally the Hollywood western but also Dashiell Hammett’s broken-city melodrama The Dain Curse. Here a lone, probably disgraced, certainly hungry samurai (Toshiro Mifune, the Wolf to Kurosawa’s Emperor) wanders into a town where two factions are in eternal conflict, glaring at one another from their matching headquarters on opposite sides of the town’s wide, western-like main street. Since each faction lacks a distinguished warrior with whose aid they might tip the balance of power in their favour, they each badly want the newcomer on their side, something the samurai figures out within moments, and exploits throughout the movie.

As the power games play out to their nihilistic, corpse-choked conclusion, Kurosawa demonstrates a mastery of his medium in almost every frame. His sense of spatial relations is beyond compare: panels in interior walls slide away to reveal whole exterior street-scapes and crowd scenes perfectly framed within the smaller new frame. Intimate conversations take place as a turbulent skirmish rages in the deep background center-screen, between the talkers’ faces in the foreground. And what faces! From the moronic warrior with the M-shaped unibrow and the giant wielding a huge mallet to Mifune’s increasingly battered countenance, sardonic, cynical and ever defiant, every single face is at once a landscape and an epic poem unto itself.

Along with all that comes Kurosawa’s furious visual energy, his virtuoso choreography of moving camera and bodies of warring men; and his talent for adding enriching layers of kinetic, elemental motion – rain falling, leaves or smoke blowing in the unceasing winds – to the violence already in play. Yojimbo led to the Italian A Fistful of Dollars, which in time completely remade the American western, completing a circle of international cultural exchange that foreshadows a give-and-take among international filmmakers that we take for granted today. John Patterson

8. A Touch of Zen

A Touch Of Zen film stillWe have A Touch of Zen to thank for Harvey Weinstein’s interest in Asian cinema; it was after Quentin Tarantino screened King Hu’s 1971wuxia that the mogul began a controversial spending spree in the east that led to his current controversial involvement with Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. It’s not hard to see why: Hu’s film is unusually epic for the genre, clocking in at over three hours, and made cinema history by being the first Chinese film to win an award at Cannes, missing out on the Palme d’Or but taking home the Technical prize.

A Touch of Zen is most notable nowadays as the template for Ang Lee‘s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, being the 14th century story of an artist, Ku, who encounters a beautiful woman living in a rundown house with her elderly mother. In true wuxia fashion, however, she is not all she seems, and so the story grows, until Ku realises that he is in the middle of a major dynastic war between rival factions. And as the story develops – effortlessly absorbing elements of comedy and romance – so does the spectacle, increasing in scale and scope in ways that would be unimaginable today.

It is these fight sequences that have endured, and although wuxia briefly fell out of favour soon after, it is easy to see Hu’s influence on the hit martial arts films of recent years. More so than Crouching Tiger, A Touch of Zen casts a long shadow over the films of Chinese director Zhang Yimou, whose House Of Flying Daggers directly references Hu’s film in its bravura bamboo forest sequence. But it is Hu’s deadpan sense of the grand that keeps this astonishing film fresh, with its themes of justice and nobility, shot through with a strange spirituality that earns the film its title in a sequence involving a pack of bouncing, kick-ass Buddhist monks.Damon Wise

7. The Raid

The RaidAs a breathless and brutal martial arts thriller shot in Jakarta and directed by a Welshman, The Raid would already have been worthy of note. That it is a film of precision and inventiveness, taking fight sequences into the realm of horror, slapstick comedy, even the musical, guarantees its place in action-movie history. The plot is as simple as its choreography is complicated. A police unit sets out one morning to seize control of a tower block in Jakarta that has fallen into the hands of a gang. But not just any gang: this mob has kitted out the high rise with sophisticated CCTV and public address systems monitored from a top-floor control room. The gang-lord, presiding over the CCTV screens, broadcasts a call to his tenants: “We have company. You know what to do.” He doesn’t mean put the kettle on and crack open the custard creams.

In the absence of much dialogue, the weapons do the talking: guns, knives, swords, hammers. A man receives an axe to the shoulder, which is then used to yank him across the room. A refrigerator doubles as a bomb. The gang’s most vicious member, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian, who also served as one of the film’s fight choreographers), acts as mouthpiece for the film’s philosophy. Casting aside his firearms, he explains: “Using a gun is like ordering takeout.” If that’s the case, Mad Dog would merit a fistful of Michelin stars.

Some of the fight sequences are enclosed claustrophobically in hallways where the only option is to use walls as springboards, Donald O’Connor-style. Others, such as a dust-up in a drugs lab, expand like dance numbers. Evans’s prime achievement has been to make a berserk adventure characterised by clarity. In contrast to most action cinema, the frenzy arises from the performers rather than the editing; no matter how frenzied things get, we never lose sight of who is karate-chopping the windpipe of whom. Ryan Gilbey

6. Ong-Bak

Ong BakHands and feet are one thing in martial arts; elbows and knees are quite another. And after seeing this Muay Thai showreel, you’d put money on Tony Jaa against any other screen fighter. Even in the scenes where Jaa isn’t fighting anyone at all, simply going through some moves, he’s awesomely formidable.

Ong Bak as a movie is fairly straightforward: city baddies steal a village’s Buddha head; a humble peasant goes to get it back, individually crushing each adversary with his bare hands in the process. That’s all it needs. Ong Bak’s prime objective is to say, “Can you believe this guy?” and with the added note that no special effects or stunt doubles were used, it more than accomplishes it. In fight after fight, Jaa unleashes moves that leave you thinking, “That’s gotta hurt”, if not “That’s gonna require major cranial reconstruction”. No holds are barred and few punches are pulled, but rather than brute violence, you’re left marvelling at Jaa’s speed, technique and pain threshold. The fights are skilfully staged, particularly an exhilarating, three-round barroom brawl that leaves no opponent or piece of furniture standing.

Jaa shows off his physical prowess in other ways, too, from an opening tree-climbing race to a Bangkok street chase that sends him along a hilarious assault course of cafe tables, market stalls, children, cars, trucks, sheets of glass and hoops of barbed wire. He’s almost too much to believe, and Ong Bak acknowledges our incredulity by frequently rewinding the action to show us Jaa’s moves in slow motion, as if to say, “Do you want to see that again?”. We do. SR

5. The Matrix

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Cocteau imagined the mirror as a gateway to another world in his 1930 film The Blood of a Poet, and it’s a testament to the durability of this image that when it turned up again in The Matrix, it had lost none of its allure. The film clocks up a further debt in its plot, which proposes that what we perceive as reality is actually a cosmetic facade constructed to conceal a terrible truth about our existence. Neo, a computer boffin played by Keanu Reeves, is selected to bear the burden of enlightenment. Reeves’s blankness in the part is perfect, mainly because Neo is required to display only those skills and qualities that are downloaded into his brain. Required to master jujitsu, he is simply installed with the relevant computer programme. In no time at all, he is pulling off those tricks from 1970s martial arts movies, where a man can launch himself in a flying kick and somehow manage to prepare a cocktail, read a short novel and fill out his tax return, all before his feet touch the ground.

The film’s Cocteau-esque concept is harnessed to some X-Files-style paranoia, but it is the dazzling martial arts work that gives the film its special lift. The directors, the Wachowski brothers, were already having ideas above their station when they came up with The Matrix (their only previous film, after all, was the sweaty, claustrophobic thriller Bound). It was the martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping who helped them reach the next level.

The movie’s fight sequences provide its purest source of pleasure for a number of reasons. First, the violence doesn’t come with redemptive overtones; it is played out for the thrill of the choreography, not the anticipation of injury or righteousness. Death is flippant, but it provides no moral kick. Second, the movie introduced a strange new effect, much copied or parodied since in everything from Charlie’s Angels to Shrek: a character freezes in midair while the camera circles the tableau like a computer imagining a 3D representation of a 2D image. When the camera has completed its movement, the physical motion of the scene resumes. Suddenly the humdrum vocabulary of the action movie has been extended before our disbelieving eyes. RG

4. House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying DaggersWatch the opening 20 minutes of House of Flying Daggers and it’s not hard to see why the Chinese picked its director, Zhang Yimou, to direct the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Even though the action unfolds within a reasonably sized brothel waiting room instead of a stadium, there’s all the elements that Zhang would multiply by the thousands in 2008: traditional Chinese music, dancing, swathes of brightly coloured silk cloth, drummers and, of course, martial arts. It makes for a magnificent spectacle that’s sets a high bar for the rest of the movie. Fortunately, there’s more dazzle to come in this follow-up to Zhang’s first wuxia film, Hero. Zhang’s 2006 Curse of the Golden Flower concluded the trilogy, but for many the romantic, operatic yet satisfyingly compact Flying Daggers represents the best of the three.

Set during the Tang dynasty, two police captains, Leo (Andy Lau, best known for the thematically-not-dissimilar Infernal Affairs trilogy) and Jin (hunky Takeshi Kaneshiro) are searching for the leader of the Flying Daggers, a counterinsurgency group. They suspect blind courtesan Mei (Zhang Ziyi) may be a secret member of the Daggers, so Jin, posing as a citizen, busts her out of jail and goes on the run with her, pursued by Leo and numerous expendable officers. Love seems to flower between Jin and Mei, but no one and nothing are as they seem here.

Although the fights are terrifically choreographed by Tony Ching Siu-tung – especially a bamboo-forest chase that tops Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a final mano-a-mano in the snow – judged against other classic martial arts films, Daggers is actually a little light on combat scenes. Indeed, the fighting is so stringently stylized it’s more like dancing with knives. No matter: the love story may be almost as schematic as the film’s rigorous use of colour, yet the acting is so powerful from the core trio that deep emotional depth is created seemingly out of nothing. Leslie Felperin

3. Police Story

Police Story film stillAlthough it was obvious at the time, it seems strange now that Jackie Chan was originally groomed by at least one Hong Kong producer as a successor to Bruce Lee, the lithe master of martial arts whose style was almost laughably serious in its grim-faced intensity. After a few tryouts in the genre, however, Chan took things in a much more comedic, but no less athletic route, which is why, after breaking out in the Yuen Woo-ping classic Drunken Master, the former stuntman found himself in Hollywood, adding light relief to The Cannonball Run in 1981.

Chan’s Hollywood career, however, didn’t pan out, and after a disappointment in 1985 with The Protector – a collaboration with neo-grindhouse director James Glickenhaus, perhaps not the most sympatico of all possible talents – Chan returned to Hong Kong to take matters into his own hands, directing and cowriting Police Story, in which he played a disgraced cop who is forced to go undercover and clear his name after being framed by drug barons.

Making a direct rebuttal of the Hollywood way of doing things (in his mind, sloppily and half-heartedly), Chan prioritised the fights and stuntwork, using the genre elements mostly as filler. Refusing to use a body double for every scene (bar one that involved a motorcycle), Chan began to earn his reputation as a fearless and pioneering action star. On this film alone, he was hospitalised with concussion, suffered severe burns, dislocated his pelvis and was almost paralysed by a shattered vertebrae. The resulting film was a huge hit and spawned five strong sequels. Seen now, it seems remarkably straight given what was to follow – the cartoonish Rush Hour series – although Chan certainly must have enjoyed the irony of being embraced by Hollywood for a film that is, essentially, a critique of everything it was doing wrong. DW

2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonWhy is Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon such a sublime experience? Perhaps because every bone in your body tells you it shouldn’t work. It’s a tranquil action movie. Whoever heard of one of those? And it’s a love story with a kick: a kung-fu kick. It begins with the theft of a fabled sword, the Green Destiny. As the sword is stolen, the camera takes flight along with the thief, for whom gravity is a restricting garment to be cast off at a moment’s notice. The warrior Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) gives chase, skipping blithely across rooftops that glow silver in the moonlight. When the pursuit gives way to combat, the rule book of action cinema is not only discarded but sliced to ribbons. For viewers too young to remember, the shock of seeing a Sam Peckinpah shoot-out back when slow motion was an innovation rather than a nasty virus, then the sight of these warriors levitating calmly to nosebleed-inducing heights will provide something of that same liberating jolt.

The midair skirmishes of martial arts movies were brought to mainstream audiences by The Matrix, and Lee enlisted that film’s choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping (who later worked on Kill Bill and Kung Fu Hustle), to take that style even further. The resulting fight routines evoke Olympic gymnastics, break dancing and those cartoon punch-ups where one of the Tasmanian Devil’s limbs would emerge briefly from within a frantic cyclone. And if Yu occasionally steps on her opponent’s foot, she’s not fighting dirty – it’s just the only way of ensuring that the battle remains at ground level.

For all the finesse of the choreography, the action sequences would be superficial without the emotional weight Lee brings to the picture, notably in the largely unspoken tenderness between Yu and her fellow warrior Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat). As a director he doesn’t differentiate between the way he shoots tenderness and violence. In his hands, a love scene can come to be brutal, with a man’s blood forming a fork across his lover’s breast as they embrace, while a struggle between opponents in the forest treetops, with the supple branches doubling as nests, catapults, rungs and bungee ropes, achieves a sensuous serenity. RG

1. Enter the Dragon

Enter the DragonBruce Lee purists may or may not agree that Enter the Dragon is his greatest film. But this is the one that has passed into legend: it was the colossal box office smash of 1973 and the most famous film of that unrivalled martial arts superstar who had died the summer before its release of a cerebral reaction to painkillers. He shared with James Dean the grim distinction of appearing posthumously in his most famous picture. After a career as a child star in Hong Kong cinema – almost the Macaulay Culkin of his day – and a spell on TV’s The Green Hornet, Lee exploded into action pictures that were simply so popular and profitable that Warner Brothers agreed to make Enter the Dragon, with Lee as star and coproducer: Hollywood’s first martial arts movie. Robert Clouse directed, and the script was by Michael Allin, who wrote the Isaac Hayes film Truck Turner. Lalo Schifrin composed the music.

Bruce Lee was possessed of extraordinary physical grace, balletic poise, lethal speed and explosive power. He was a master of kung fu, judo and karate, and is considered the spiritual godfather to today’s mixed martial arts scene. He was not a big man, and so his presence was better captured by the camera lens. Moreover, he had a delicately handsome, almost boyish face and had a charm and verbal fluency as he expounded his Zen theories of combat in interviews, something more like dynamic motivational philosophy than any fortune-cookie cliché. Lee had a presence and charisma comparable to Muhammad Ali, and that was perhaps never better captured than in Enter the Dragon. Perhaps only Jackie Chan now rivals him as an Asian star in Hollywood – and Hollywood has not shown much interest in promoting an Asian-American A-lister since Enter the Dragon.

Lee plays a Shaolin master who is recuited by British intelligence to enter a martial arts tournament undercover. This event is being run by a sinister megalomaniac called Han who is suspected of involvement in drugs and prostitution. Lee has a personal beef with Han, whose goons terrorised and attempted to rape Lee’s kid sister – she committed suicide rather than submit. He shows up at the island with a couple of American fighters: Williams, played by Jim Kelly, provides some Shaft-style street cred while Roper, played by John Saxon, is a playboy type who is close to the James Bond template. In truth, of course, it is Lee himself who is the James Bond, but he is no womaniser. Bruce Lee has a monkish purity and spirituality, with a laser-like focus on exposing Han – and of course kicking ass.

The look of the movie is exotic and extravagant, especially its inspired hall-of-mirrors showdown, with Lee sporting the weird, almost tribal slashes across his midriff. His strange, animal quavering cry and piercing gaze are entirely unique. But what makes Enter the Dragon outshine the rest is the serene, almost innocent idealism of Lee himself. In the opening scenes, Lee speaks humbly to the aged Abbot at his temple, coolly takes tea with the British intelligence chief Braithwaite, and interrupts their conversation to instruct a teenage boy in martial arts. When this young hothead is easily bested in combat, Lee says to him with inimitable seriousness: “We need emotional content – not anger.” It is the philosophy of this martial arts classic, and its unique star. Peter Bradshaw


Men and women ‘wired differently’

Men and women’s brains are connected in different ways which may explain why the sexes excel at certain tasks, say researchers.

A US team at the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of nearly 1,000 men, women, boys and girls and found striking differences.

brain networksThe “connectome maps” reveal the differences between the male brain (seen in blue) and the female brain (orange)

Male brains appeared to be wired front to back, with few connections bridging the two hemispheres.

In females, the pathways criss-crossed between left and right.

These differences might explain why men, in general, tend to be better at learning and performing a single task, like cycling or navigating, whereas women are more equipped for multitasking, say the researchers in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The same volunteers were asked to perform a series of cognitive tests, and the results appeared to support this notion.

But experts have questioned whether it can be that simple, arguing it is a huge leap to extrapolate from anatomical differences to try to explain behavioural variation between the sexes. Also, brain connections are not set and can change throughout life.

In the study, women scored well on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition, while men performed better on spatial processing and sensori-motor speed.

To look at brain connectivity, the researchers used a type of scan called DTI – a water-based imaging technique that can trace and highlight the fibre pathways connecting the different regions of the brain.

Study author Dr Ruben Gur said: “It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are.

“Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex related.”

Complex organ

Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg, a UK expert in neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said the brain was too complex an organ to be able to make broad generalisations.

“We know that there is no such thing as ‘hard wiring’ when it comes to brain connections. Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning.

“Often, sophisticated mathematical approaches are used to analyse and describe these brain networks. These methods can be useful to identify differences between groups, but it is often challenging to interpret those differences in biological terms.”

Dr Michael Bloomfield, Clinical Research Fellow at the Medical Research Council Clinical Sciences Centre in London, said: “It has been known for some time that there are differences between the sexes when it comes to how our bodies work and the brain is no exception.

However, he said care must be taken in drawing conclusions from the study, as the precise relationships between how our brains are wired and our performance on particular tasks needed further investigation.

“We cannot say yet that one is causing the other.

“Furthermore, the measure used in the study, called “connectivity”, is only one aspect of how our brains our wired.

“We think that there can also be differences in certain chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, for example, and so we need more research to fully understand how all these different aspects of brain structure and function work together to answer fundamental questions like “how do we think?”.

“One thing that remains unknown is what is driving these differences between the sexes. An obvious possibility is that that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogren have different affects on the brain.

“A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired.”


Vitamin D’s disease role queried


Vitamin D supplements
Vitamin D supplements are recommended for young children and the elderly

Scientists have cast doubt on the value of vitamin D supplements to protect against diseases such as cancers, diabetes and dementia.

Writing in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, French researchers suggest low vitamin D levels do not cause ill health, although they did not look at bone diseases.

More clinical trials on non-skeletal diseases are needed, they say.

Vitamin D supplements are recommended for certain groups.

“Start Quote

What this suggests is that decreases in vitamin D levels are a marker of deteriorating health. ”

Prof Philippe AutierInternational Prevention Research Institute

Recent evidence has shown it may also have a role to play in preventing non-bone-related diseases such as Parkinson’s, dementia, cancers and inflammatory diseases.

Prof Philippe Autier, from the International Prevention Research Institute in Lyon, carried out a review of data from 290 prospective observational studies and 172 randomised trials looking at the effects of vitamin D levels on health outcomes, excluding bone health, up to December 2012.


A large number of the observational studies suggested that there were benefits from high vitamin D – that it could reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by up to 58%, diabetes by up to 38% and colorectal cancer by up to 33%.

But the results of the clinical trials – where participants were given vitamin D supplements – found no reduction in risk, even in people who started out with low vitamin D levels.

And a further analysis of recent randomised trials found no positive effect of vitamin D supplements on diseases occurring.

Prof Autier said: “What this discrepancy suggests is that decreases in vitamin D levels are a marker of deteriorating health.

What is a vitamin D deficiency?

A vitamin D level less than 25nmol/L in the blood is a deficiency, but experts increasingly believe that lower than 60nmol/L can also be damaging to health.

Most people get enough vitamin D by being exposed to the sun for 10 to 15 minutes a day.

A small amount of vitamin D also comes from foods such as oily fish and dairy products.

Recently England’s chief medical officer said free vitamins should be given to all young children because more and more of them were being diagnosed with the bone disease rickets, lack of calcium and other bone and muscle diseases.

“Ageing and inflammatory processes involved in disease occurrence… reduce vitamin D concentrations, which would explain why vitamin D deficiency is reported in a wide range of disorders.”

High risk

In the UK, vitamin D supplements are recommended for groups at higher risk of deficiency, including all pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under five years old, people aged over 65, and people at risk of not getting enough exposure to sunlight.

People with dark skin, such as people of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin, and people who wear full-body coverings, as well as pale-skinned people are also known to be at higher risk.

In recent years, there has been a four-fold increase in admissions to UK hospital with rickets – a disease that causes bones to become soft and deformed.

Dr Colin Michie, consultant senior lecturer in paediatrics and chair of the nutrition committee at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said the review had little to contribute to the problem in the UK because it excluded the measurement of bone health.

“It has been known for almost a century that vitamin D supplements given to those with deficient vitamin D levels results in improved bone health, preventing hypocalcemic seizure and rickets.”

He added that it was important to provide appropriate supplements, such as vitamin D, to improve bone health.

More research

Peter Selby, consultant physician and honorary professor of metabolic bone disease at Manchester Royal Infirmary, said the French review was limited.

“It could very well be that the apparent negative results of this study have been obtained simply because they have not been looking at people with sufficient degree of vitamin D insufficiency to have any meaningful biological effect.”

But he said the authors were right to say that more interventional research looking at disease outcomes was necessary.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), an independent group of scientific experts who advise the government on nutrition, is currently reviewing the dietary recommendations for vitamin D for all population groups in the UK.

Their report on vitamin D is expected to go out for public consultation in 2014.

More men chat in girls’ ‘dialect’

Group of people talking

Men are increasingly rising in pitch at the end of their sentences

  • More young men in California rise in pitch at the end of their sentences when talking, new research shows.

This process is known as “uptalk” or “valleygirl speak” and has in the past been associated with young females, typically from California or Australia.

But now a team says that this way of speaking is becoming more frequent among men.

The findings were presented at the Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in California.

“We found use of uptalk in all of our speakers, despite their diverse backgrounds in socioeconomic status, ethnicity, bilingualism and gender,” said Amanda Ritchart, a linguist at the University of California who led the research.

“We believe that uptalk is becoming more prevalent and systematic in its use for the younger generations in Southern California,” she added.

The team recorded and analysed the voices of 23 native Californians aged between 18 and 22. The researchers were therefore not able to infer similar language patters in older Californians.

Sounding ditzy

People who speak uptalk are often misunderstood to be insecure, shallow or slightly dim, according to the team, who say this was not necessarily the case.

Speaking to the BBC’s Inside Science programme, co-author Amalia Arvanati, from the University of Kent, said it was hard to know how this process started.

“People talk about Frank Zappa’s song, Valley Girl. Finding out where it started is very difficult because we don’t have good records of how people use pitch.

“One possibility is that this is an extension of a pitch pattern that we actually find in most varieties of English which is used when you’re making a statement but you’re [also] asking indirectly for the interlocutor to confirm if they are with you,” Prof Arvaniti said.

She added that “uptalk” had negative connotations which made men less likely to admit to using it, but what was clear was that it was spreading.

“It grates on people, some people think it sounds really ditzy or insecure. This does not accurately come across like that to the native speakers.”

Women leaders

Claire Nance, a linguistics lecturer at Lancaster University, commented that the research reinforced the fact that uptalk was “increasingly widespread across all kinds of people”.

“Typically, women are trail-blazers in language change and take up innovative features first, then males start using them later.

“No spoken language ever remains stable and constant change is very much the norm. However, change often causes alarm among people who do not use an innovative feature, and uptalk appears to be another example of this trend,” Dr Nance added.

She explained that speakers may use uptalk to convey politeness or empathy with the listener, but that this was not always understood by non-uptalkers, perhaps due to its similarity to question intonation.


Why it’s time for brain science to ditch the ‘Venus and Mars’ cliche.

Reports trumpeting basic differences between male and female brains are biological determinism at its most trivial, says the science writer of the year
brains illustration male female

There is little evidence to suggest differences between male and female brains are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Photograph: Alamy

As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks’ favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains. For more than 30 years, I have seen a stream of tales about gender differences in brain structure under headlines that assure me that from birth men are innately more rational and better at map-reading than women, who are emotional, empathetic multi-taskers, useless at telling jokes. I am from Mars, apparently, while the ladies in my life are from Venus.

And there are no signs that this flow is drying up, with last week witnessing publication of a particularly lurid example of the genre. Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia revealed they had used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to show that the neurons in men’s brains are connected to each other in a very different way from neurons in women’s brains.

This point was even illustrated by the team, led by Professor Ragini Verma, with a helpful diagram. A male brain was depicted with its main connections – coloured blue, needless to say – running from the front to the back. Connections within cranial hemispheres were strong, but connections between the two hemispheres were weak. By contrast, the female brain had thick connections running from side to side with strong links between the two hemispheres.

Men and women brains U.Penn studyA photo issued by University of Pennsylvania researchers showing intra-hemispheric connections (blue) and inter- hemispheric connections (orange) in men’s and women’s brains. Male top row, female bottom row. Photograph: National Academy Of Sciences/PA”These maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others,” said Verma.

The response of the press was predictable. Once again scientists had “proved” that from birth men have brains which are hardwired to give us better spatial skills, to leave us bereft of empathy for others, and to make us run, like mascara, at the first hint of emotion. Equally, the team had provided an explanation for the “fact” that women cannot use corkscrews or park cars but can remember names and faces better than males. It is all written in our neurons at birth.

As I have said, I have read this sort of thing before. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skills are emphasised by teachers and parents. As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring – which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realise. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.

Equally, when gender differences are uncovered by researchers they are frequently found to be trivial, a point made by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioural genetics at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, whose studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children’s verbal development is due to their gender. “If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls, you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild.”

I should make it clear that Plomin made that remark three years ago when I last wrote about the issue of gender and brain wiring. It was not my first incursion, I should stress. Indeed, I have returned to the subject – which is an intriguing, important one – on a number of occasions over the years as neurological studies have been hyped in the media, often by the scientists who carried them out. It has taken a great deal of effort by other researchers to put the issue in proper perspective.

A major problem is the lack of consistent work in the field, a point stressed to me in 2005 – during an earlier outbreak of brain-gender difference stories – by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, and author of Y: The Descent of Men. “Researching my book, I discovered there was no consensus at all about the science [of gender and brain structure],” he told me. “There were studies that said completely contradictory things about male and female brains. That means you can pick whatever study you like and build a thesis around it. The whole field is like that. It is very subjective. That doesn’t mean there are no differences between the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them.”

Needless to say that is not what has happened over the years. Indeed, this has become a topic whose coverage has been typified mainly by flaky claims, wild hyperbole and sexism. It is all very depressing. The question is: why has this happened? Why is there such divergence in explanations for the differences in mental abilities that we observe in men and women? And why do so many people want to exaggerate them so badly?

The first issue is the easier to answer. The field suffers because it is bedevilled by its extraordinary complexity. The human brain is a vast, convoluted edifice and scientists are only now beginning to develop adequate tools to explore it. The use of diffusion tensor imaging by Verma’s team was an important breakthrough, it should be noted. The trouble is, once more, those involved were rash in their interpretations of their own work.

“This study contains some important data but it has been badly overhyped and the authors must take some of the blame,” says Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University. “They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain.”

Even more critical is Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “The study’s main conclusions about possible cognitive differences between males and females are not supported by the findings of the study. A link between anatomical differences and cognitive functions should be demonstrated and the authors have not done so. They simply have no idea of how these differences in anatomy translate into cognitive attitudes. So the main conclusion of the study is purely speculative.”

The study is also unclear how differences in brain architecture between the sexes arose in the first place, a point raised by Michael Bloomfield of the MRC’s Clinical Science Centre. “An obvious possibility is that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogen have different effects on the brain. A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired.”

In fact, Verma’s results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain’s wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue. In the end, I suspect it depends on whether you believe our fates are sealed at birth or if you think that it is a key part of human nature to be able to display a plasticity in behaviour and in ways of thinking in the face of altered circumstance. My money is very much on the latter.


In their study, Verma and her colleagues, investigated the gender differences in brain connectivity in 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males – aged between eight and 22 years. The technique they used is known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a water-based imaging technology that can trace and highlight the fibre pathways that connect the different regions of the brain, laying the foundation for a structural connectome or network of the whole brain. These studies revealed a typical pattern, claim Verma and her team: men had stronger links between neurons within their cranial hemispheres while women had stronger links between the two hemispheres, a difference that the scientists claimed was crucial in explaining difference in the behaviour of men and women.

But the technique has been criticised. “DTI provides only indirect measures of structural connectivity and is, therefore, different from the well validated microscopic techniques that show the real anatomy of axonal connections,” says Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “Images of the brain derived from diffusion tensor MRI should not be equated to real connections and results should always be interpreted with extreme caution.”This point is backed by Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg, of Oxford University, who attacked the idea that brain connections should be considered as hard-wired. “Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning. As far as I can tell, the authors have not directly related these differences in brain connections to differences in behaviour. It is a huge leap to extrapolate from anatomical differences to try to explain behavioural variation between the sexes. The brain regions that have been highlighted are involved in many different functions.”


Brain Connectivity Problems May Be At Root Of Dyslexia.

These Amazing Classic Books Are So Short You Have No Excuse Not To Read Them.

Scene from comic strip featuring Qahera
She’s got comic strip superpowers, fights for justice and gives bad guys a hard time. If this makes you think of Catwoman, then think again – for this is a new kind of superheroine with a visible difference.

Meet Qahera – the hijab-wearing Egyptian comic-book character fighting back against crime and prejudice.

She is the brainchild of a young Egyptian artist who created the first everEgyptian superhero in a web comic, and its picking up a growing fanbase.

“It all started as a joke with a group of friends,” Deena Mohamed says.

“It was my way to respond in my own way to things that were frustrating me at the time,” she laughs, “and when the idea of having superpowers was fascinating!”

But when Deena put the comic online a few months ago, she did not expect the scale of positive reactions.

“Start Quote

I wanted to send a message about the general Islamophobic backlash, and if I was going to address that, I needed to make a statement”

Deena Mohamed

Her website got hundreds of thousands of hits – more than 500,000 since September alone. Egypt is the top country of visitors to the site, followed by the US.

Deena also found enthusiasm among local publishers who asked her to create a printed version as well.

“It is insane. Way more exposure than I ever expected,” the 19-year-old art student says.

Inevitably perhaps, the creation drew some negative reactions, mainly from people not convinced about adopting the Western concept of a superhero.

Deena, though, does not agree.

“We are all exposed to the idea of comics and superheroes. We are exposed to Western media so often. So I guess I was just responding to that in my own way.”

Hijabi and strong

The name Qahera is the Arabic word for Egypt’s capital, Cairo. It also means the conqueror or the vanquisher.

Deena Mohamed 'self-portrait'
Deena says Qahera is aimed at shattering the stereotype that women who wear the hijab cannot be strong

Deena says she had her superheroine with the all-powerful name wear a hijab to combat a widespread stereotype that women wearing the Islamic attire cannot be strong.

“There is already so little representation of women who wear the hijab, although that is the majority of women I see around me, and it did not make sense not to make her wear hijab,” says Deena, who does not wear a hijab herself.

Hijab – the principle of modesty in Islam that includes manners of dress – is a religious obligation stipulated by the Koran, according to scholars at Al-Azhar, the highest seating of Sunni Islam.

“Start Quote

Sister, take off your oppression!”

Comic-strip character to Qahera

Deena says she had her eye on a Western audience from the beginning, another reason why her character wears a hijab, and episodes are written in English.

“I wanted to send a message about the general Islamophobic backlash, and if I was going to address that, I needed to make a statement.

“Women who wear hijab usually bear the brunt of Islamophobia,” she says.

One of her comics is tackling the Western misconceptions on submissive Muslim women.

“Look, it is a Muslim woman,” says one of the characters in a story featuring Western feminists.

“Sister, take off your oppression!”

But the superheroine reacts angrily to their call.

“You have constantly undermined women. You seem unable to understand we do not need your help!”

Street harassment

In the past few years, sexual harassment of women on the streets of Egypt has become a growing phenomenon.

While most women are usually helpless in this situation, Qahera does something about it.

Scene from comic strip featuring QaheraThe comic strip tackles the phenomenon of street attacks on women

Deena created an entire episode about harassment, where Qahera dons her long black hijab and carries a sword as she chases down male abusers, and flies to fight wherever a woman is mistreated.

“Never bother another woman again!” Qahera warns a beaten-up culprit.

The past few decades saw a majority of Muslim women in Egypt adopt the attire. On the streets of Cairo, there are few women with their hair uncovered.

But the modest Islamic attire fails to protect women from being abused.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women said in a recent report that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, whether physical or verbal.

Deena says the theme is based on real experiences with street harassment. However she does not encourage women to react the way Qahera does.

“If you are not alone and have enough support around you, you can call them out. But otherwise, you can just ignore it. It is really a difficult situation, and some women have to deal with it almost every day.”

‘Tribute to women’

Deena’s latest episode focuses on another issue that has been taking over the streets since the 2011 uprising – protests.

But she says it is less of a superhero comic and more of a tribute – to women who contributed to the revolution in so many ways.

“I remember at one point during the revolution, people would use statistics of attacks on women to discredit political movements – and Egyptians – at large. This keeps happening, consistently, both locally and internationally.

“People will abuse statistics as they see fit, but they will always ignore the women at the base of those statistics. So, politics and superpowers aside, here is my attempt at a tribute to real-life superheroes.”


UK paves way for driverless cars

driverless cars

Driverless cars
Milton Keynes will introduce driverless pods

The government has announced that it wants to make the UK a world centre for the development of driverless cars.

It said it would conduct a review next year to ensure that the legislative and regulatory framework is in place for such vehicles to be incorporated on Britain’s roads.

It will also create a £10m prize to fund a town or city to become a testing ground for autonomous vehicles.

Milton Keynes is already experimenting with driverless pods.

By mid-2017 it is planned that 100 fully autonomous vehicles will run on the town’s pathways along with pedestrians, using sensors to avoid collisions.

The plans for self-drive cars were announced in the chancellor’s National Infrastructure Plan.

Radical change

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People will be like the millionaires of old where you just had a driver that did everything”

Brad TempletonSoftware engineer

Much of the hype around driverless cars centres around Google. Its self-drive car recently completed 500,000 miles (804,000km) of road tests.

In the US, California, Nevada and Florida have passed legislation to allow driverless cars.

This month Nissan carried out the first public road test of an autonomous vehicle on a Japanese highway.

Many envisage a future when we may not own cars at all but simply hail one to fulfil all our transportation needs.

“I call it mobility on demand. You pop out your mobile phone, say where you want to go and how many people and in a short amount of time a vehicle rolls up,” said Brad Templeton, software engineer and adviser to Google on its self-drive car project.

“People will be like the millionaires of old where you just had a driver that did everything. These cars will worry about recharging, parking and refuelling. They will drive down a road without you paying much attention to it,” he said.

Such cars will make cities both safer and greener, he thinks.

“It will radically change the amount of energy we use, how congested our streets are and eliminate most of the parking lots that take up a huge amount of space in our cities.

“Humans kill 1.2 million people in car accidents each year so the idea of being able to make a safer vehicle is very appealing,” he said.

Many think that the issue of who will be liable in the event of accidents will hold up the development of autonomous vehicles but Mr Templeton is not convinced.

“I think only the barristers will find it the most interesting question,” he said.

“For me the more interesting question is whether a machine is more liable than a drunk driver. Countries that decide a machine is more liable will slow the development of this technology,” he added.

Car manufacturers suggest that autonomous vehicles will be on the roads within the decade.

Google has given 2017 as the date its cars will hit the roads. Not to be outdone, Elon Musk, head of electric car company Tesla Motors, has said he will have such vehicles ready in 2016.

Other car manufacturers, including Daimler and Nissan have given a 2020 date for their own versions.

Much of the underlying technology for autonomous driving is already installed in cars such as the Mercedes S500 which uses onboard radar and 3D stereoscopic cameras to gauge the distance from other cars.

Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system.

Physicist doubts work like Higgs boson identification achievable now as academics are expected to ‘keep churning out papers’
  • Peter Higgs: 'Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that'.
Peter Higgs: ‘Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that’. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.

The emeritus professor at Edinburgh University, who says he has never sent an email, browsed the internet or even made a mobile phone call, published fewer than 10 papers after his groundbreaking work, which identified the mechanism by which subatomic material acquires mass, was published in 1964.

He doubts a similar breakthrough could be achieved in today’s academic culture, because of the expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers. He said: “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”

Speaking to the Guardian en route to Stockholm to receive the 2013 Nobel prize for science, Higgs, 84, said he would almost certainly have been sacked had he not been nominated for the Nobel in 1980.

Edinburgh University’s authorities then took the view, he later learned, that he “might get a Nobel prize – and if he doesn’t we can always get rid of him”.

Higgs said he became “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”. A message would go around the department saying: “Please give a list of your recent publications.” Higgs said: “I would send back a statement: ‘None.’ ”

By the time he retired in 1996, he was uncomfortable with the new academic culture. “After I retired it was quite a long time before I went back to my department. I thought I was well out of it. It wasn’t my way of doing things any more. Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough.”

Higgs revealed that his career had also been jeopardised by his disagreements in the 1960s and 70s with the then principal, Michael Swann, who went on to chair the BBC. Higgs objected to Swann’s handling of student protests and to the university’s shareholdings in South African companies during the apartheid regime. “[Swann] didn’t understand the issues, and denounced the student leaders.”

He regrets that the particle he identified in 1964 became known as the “God particle”.

He said: “Some people get confused between the science and the theology. They claim that what happened at Cern proves the existence of God.”

An atheist since the age of 10, he fears the nickname “reinforces confused thinking in the heads of people who are already thinking in a confused way. If they believe that story about creation in seven days, are they being intelligent?”

He also revealed that he turned down a knighthood in 1999. “I’m rather cynical about the way the honours system is used, frankly. A whole lot of the honours system is used for political purposes by the government in power.”

He has not yet decided which way he will vote in the referendum onScottish independence. “My attitude would depend a little bit on how much progress the lunatic right of the Conservative party makes in trying to get us out of Europe. If the UK were threatening to withdraw from Europe, I would certainly want Scotland to be out of that.”

He has never been tempted to buy a television, but was persuaded to watch The Big Bang Theory last year, and said he wasn’t impressed.