Selasa, 22 April 2014

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf


Posted: 21 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Are pharmaceuticals hiding the truth of the two "Berlin Patients" to capitalise on 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS?

When HIV/AIDS first came to public attention in the 1980s, several thousand people were diagnosed as infected with this "cancer". It was perceived as a medical mystery and it was a disease that carried a social stigma. It was prevalent among gay men at the time when the community wasn't accepted (as it is today). People were hesitant to talk about the disease, and funding research or finding a cure for it was low on the list of priorities for any pharmaceutical company or government.

According to Nathalia Holt, that's why a cure for HIV/AIDS came from elsewhere in the medical community. Cured tells the story of the "Berlin Patients" – the first two people to have been functionally cured of HIV/AIDS, one in 1996 and one in 2008. She offers fascinating medical insights into how the HIV/AIDS virus works and how it can be tackled. It's clearly presented in terms and analogies relatively easily understood by the motivated layperson. 

Sometimes it reads like a thriller, with backstabbing scientists and vials of blood being couriered around the world. We meet humanised mice that have been genetically modified to have human immune systems so that they can be used in experiments. Then there's also the predominant human interest of this book. It's the story of a few men and women, and how their relationships changed the way HIV/AIDS is treated today.

The most amazing and mystifying part of the story is that even though the Berlin Patients were cured of HIV/AIDS, and meticulous records were kept of their treatment, there has never been an attempt to repeat their treatments on a larger scale. Both men were cured by different means, and while elements of their cure have been replicated, there are many aspects that seem to be wilfully ignored, particularly what seems to be the proven effectiveness of early and aggressive treatment. 

The understated but important element of this book is the discussion of the relationship between big pharmaceutical companies (Big Pharma) and medical care. Though it only makes up a fraction of the book's content, it is important in understanding the present status quo. The main impetus of Holt's explanation can be summarised in one quote: "If no one can make money, even the best drug will fail."

As things stand, there are treatments available that help people with HIV/AIDS to live a regular lifespan. However, in some places these treatments are extremely costly, often reaching sums in excess of US$75,000 (RM243,600) a year. Wouldn't it be better to use what was learned from the Berlin Patients to develop a cure? But better for whom?

The stark reality is that Big Pharma doesn't exist for the benefit of mankind. Its raison d'etre is to produce profits for its shareholders, something that it succeeds at quite gloriously. If the needs of the general public and Big Pharma intersect, then well and good, but if they don't... Well, business is business, the bottom line is the bottom line.

If it's more profitable to keep people on expensive medication for the rest of their lives than offering them a cure, then there's little incentive for Big Pharma to invest in finding one. Follow the money. Not only does Big Pharma have little financial incentive to find a cure, they effectively have a financial disincentive. The end result of this is that millions of people living with HIV/AIDS who don't have access to expensive drugs won't get access to a cure either.

There is, however, hope on the horizon. Not everyone investing in HIV/AIDS research is motivated by financial gain. There are benevolent donors like Bill and Melissa Gates, who have donated significant sums that through the tireless work of dedicated researchers are translating into hopeful prospective treatments, and moving closer to effective functional cures for HIV/AIDS.

Thanks to these people there are many new clinical trials on-going in the fields of stem cell transplants and gene therapy. Both of these seem to be promising areas of research that are working to modify and create immune systems that the virus can't attack.

Cured is a must read for any medical practitioner, medical student, anyone with HIV/AIDS, anyone who knows someone who is, or any person who lives on a planet where millions of its people are living with the disease. 

Emperors Once More

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Two ministers are murdered on the eve of a gathering of world powers and Senior Inspector Alex Soong takes on the case.

Emperors Once More is set in the Hong Kong of 2017. And moves at a gratifyingly brisk pace. When two Methodist ministers are murdered on the eve of a gathering of dignitaries and officials of world powers, Senior Inspector Alex Soong takes on the case.

He's a man of drive and East-meets-West eclecticism: keen on traditional martial arts and a Chinese history buff, who motors around in an imported Mustang, and loves jazz. Shockingly, Soong is invited by the killer to join him in a conspiracy to reassert China's global supremacy. After rebuffing this apparently crazy offer twice, Soong notices historical linkages, particularly to the Boxer Rebellion, concerning the case.

The relationship between East and West is central to this thriller, propelled by a disturbed individual's demons spawned by China's humiliations at the hands of the Western colonial powers in the 19th century. With Hong Kong about to host a summit between the Chinese and the faltering G8 powers – who are massively in debt to Asia's economic giant – the villain sees an opportunity for payback. 

Jepson's crisp prose, clever plotting and interweaving of Western and Eastern historical narratives all add up to a compelling read – albeit one that assumes some general knowledge on the reader's part. This reviewer is glad the author avoided the temptation of penning another sepia-tinted tome set in 20th century China, and took on the challenge of crafting a near-future crime-thriller. He's pulled it off well.

The Superior Spider-Man #31 (series finale)

Posted: 21 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Spoiler alert: Contains major spoilers for The Superior Spider-Man #30.

As the dust settled on Otto Octavius' 15-month reign as the Superior Spider-Man, I couldn't help but feel a pang of sadness. Over the 31-issue run of The Superior Spider-Man, what had started out as genuine outrage at what Dan Slott had done to Peter Parker had slowly grown into a reluctant acceptance that Doc Ock really was a superior Spider-Man.

By the time the series-ending Goblin Nation arc came around, I was already rooting for the one-time villain to redeem himself before the inevitable return of Peter Parker. And redeem himself he did, in The Superior Spider-Man #30. Realising that despite possessing the superior intellect, he lacked the instinct and reflexes required to be a true superhero. So Otto sacrificed his consciousness to allow Peter to take back control of his body, in order to save the love of his life, Anna Maria.

It was a "death" scene (for we have no doubt that he will be back one day) that was worthy of the greatest superheroes (and one rarely accorded to supervillains), and showed just how far Otto Octavius had redeemed himself through his stint as Spider-Man.

So, on now to this series finale, which sees Peter mopping up Otto's mess, first by taking out the Hobgoblin with a single blow, and then teaming up with Spider-Man 2099 (who is set for his own solo title in July) to lay siege on the Green Goblin's (or Goblin King, as he likes to be known these days) base at Osco... sorry, Alchemax's headquarters.

The moment when the Goblin realised that it wasn't Otto he was dealing with anymore (through a trademark Parker wisecrack, no less) was a real pleasure to read, as was the smackdown he subsequently received from Peter.

This was a real bittersweet issue. It's great to have Peter Parker, along with the banter and the old costume, back, but it's a testament to just how Otto had reinvigorated the character that this actually felt like a step back for the character. Somehow, I missed the complexity and the arrogant confidence of Otto's almost anti-hero-like Spidey, not to mention his frequent "Imbeciles!" admonishments. The Superior Spider-Man may not have been the nicest person around, but by Uncle Ben's ghost, he certainly could get the job done.

For me, the best part of this finale wasn't the action – it was Peter's final realisation that despite the mess Doc Ock had made in his life, his former nemesis still had to die in order for Peter to come back. The bonus Actions Have Consequences story at the end of the book also underlined the massive task Peter has of reintegrating himself back into "his" life, as well as how irreparably Otto messed up his relationships with the people he loves, as well as with the Avengers.

How Peter deals with these issues will undoubtedly be addressed in the relaunched Amazing Spider-Man title next month (also written by Slott with art by Humberto Ramos). For now, however, let us take a moment to mourn the demise of Doctor Otto Octavius, also known as Doctor Octopus, and the one and only Superior Spider-Man.


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