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Science Policy Around the Web – October 31, 2014

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D

photo credit: Ian Ruotsala via photopin cc

Research Policy

Brain-Training Companies Get Advice From Some Academics, Criticism From Others

Media attention has exploded recently over brain games such as Lumosity and CogMed.  These companies often make claims that their games can enhance intelligence and slow cognitive decline.  Although the groups advertise they base their games on research studies from top universities, their advertisements are not well-founded on science, asserts a group of 70 researchers in a critique of some of the statements made by the brain-training industry. Sometimes brain game companies even promote their products by showing photos and names of collaborating scientists without their permission. According to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, this was the case for Susanne M. Jaeggi, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California at Irvine.  Dr. Jaeggi briefly collaborated with Lumosity several years ago, hoping the company’s web platform would facilitate data collection on an experiment she and her research partners had designed. Although Jaeggi terminated the project after running a few subjects, her name is still in Lumosity’s materials, and she has found her photo on other companies’ websites, used without her permission, to hint that she endorses their products.    The critique was signed by professors of neuroscience, psychology, and gerontology.  Professors from the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, wrote that there was “little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.” Not all researchers agree, however. Lumping all brain game companies together is “a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” said Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief scientific officer of the brain-training company Posit Science, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education article describing the statement as “irresponsible.”  Roberto Cabeza, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and another signatory on the statement, says that his view is that it’s fine to play such games for fun, but “if you’re doing it like a chore” to postpone cognitive aging and dementia there are other, better established methods of keeping the brain sharp, such as exercising.  Bottom line is that the $120 you might be tempted to spend on a commercial brain games subscription might be better spent on a gym membership. (Rebecca Koenig, Chronicles of Higher Education)

 

Biology – Stem Cell Research

Scientists grow ‘miniature stomachs’ from stem cells, which could patch up ulcers one day

Scientists grow ‘miniature stomachs’ from stem cells, which could eventually be used to patch ulcers. The study, conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center published in Nature this week, was the first time scientists were able to use human stem cells to generate functional 3D stomach tissue. In addition, the researchers replicated what occurs in the real stomach when they injected the ulcer-causing H.Pylori bacteria. According to the lead author James Wells, “whatever the mouse stomach did at any given stage, our mini-stomach did as well, and at basically the same time, and it developed into a strikingly stomach-like architecture.” Eventually the hope is that a patient’s own cells can be used to grow patches of tissue to repair damage in the stomach, intestine, or colon. (Rachel Feltman, Washington Post)

 

Human Health and Nutrition

Sweet Stuff
How Sugars and Sweeteners Affect Your Health

Time to take out the candy for tonight’s ‘Trick-or-Treaters’?   Maybe it would be better to offer something not so sweet or to try the Halloween Candy Buyback program featured on today’s NPR’s blog “The Salt.”  NIH pediatricians, such as Kristina Rother, and other sweetener experts agree that Americans eat way too much sugar and it contributes to the obesity epidemic and cardiovascular problems. The leading culprits are soft drinks and sweetened juices, but sugar is also added to foods to make them taste better. On a list of ingredients, they may be listed as sucrose (table sugar), corn sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit-juice concentrates, nectar, raw sugar, malt syrup, maple syrup, fructose sweeteners, liquid fructose, honey, molasses, anhydrous dextrose, or other words ending in “-ose,” the chemical suffix for sugars. It turns out that 15% of the American diet is made up of added sugar and this percentage is equivalent to 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day.  ( Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, NIH News in Health)

 

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October 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 28, 2014

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By: Lani S. Chun

photo credit: BWJones via photopin cc

Ebola Outbreak – Public Health

WHO convenes meeting to discuss the development and implementation of Ebola vaccine

Much attention has been given to the isolated incidents of travelers inadvertently bringing Ebola outside of West Africa, feeding fears that Ebola may become a global epidemic. However, it is important to note that there have only been 10 deaths and 27 cases confirmed outside of the three hardest hit countries—Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia—where almost 5,000 ebola deaths out of over 10,000 cases have been confirmed. This highlights the need to concentrate on the plight of the citizens and healthcare workers who are living and working in West Africa, where limited healthcare resources, long-standing cultural traditions, and distrust in the government are prolonging and exacerbating the ebola outbreak. On the 23rd of October, the WHO convened a meeting to discuss the development and implementation of ebola vaccines as the best option to curb current and future ebola outbreaks. Among the 90+ participants were representatives of governments, charities, banks, pharmaceutical companies, and academic scientists. As a result, production of potential vaccines is scheduled ramp up in 2015. In addition, clinical trials and approvals of said vaccines will be fast-tracked with the prioritization put on vaccination of healthcare workers. (Chris Johnston, The Guardian; Patterson Clark, Washington Post; CDC; WHO)

 

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry co-awardee, Eric Betzig, makes additional contributions to the field of microscopy

The Nobel Prizes serve as symbols of global participation in the advancement of culture, human welfare, and scientific achievement and are widely considered crowning achievements for awardees, but Eric Betzig isn’t just accomplished; he’s prolific. On October 8, 2014, Eric Betzig shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to the development of single-molecule microscopy, which he was the first to utilize in 2006. Sixteen days after the Nobel Prize announcement, his group published a paper in Science, describing another ground-breaking method called lattice light-sheet microscopy. Lattice light-sheet microscopy overcomes the low spatio-temporal resolution of current technologies, allowing in vivo, 3D visualization of highly dynamic processes with minimal photobleaching and background fluorescence. This method provides a more nuanced and detailed mechanism for visualizing cellular processes and is an essential advancement of fluorescence imaging technology. (Rachel Feltman, Washington Post; Nobelprize.org; Chen et al., Science)

 

Federal Science Policy

USA share of internationally funded nuclear fusion research in jeopardy due to Congressional concerns over budget

In 2007, the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) Agreement was signed and ratified by six countries (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and USA) and the European Union. With the ratification of the agreement, the countries set out to collaboratively build and test a magnetic confinement system, called a tokamak, that could serve as a proof-of-concept for nuclear fusion as a source of energy. Although the tokamak will not be used to produce electricity, the goal of the 30-year project is to demonstrate that energy output from nuclear fusion can be ten times greater than energy input. Construction of the largest tokamak to date began in 2013 with scheduled completion of the machine in 2019. The USA agreed to build 9% of the tokamak regardless of the price tag. However, mismanagement, ballooning expenditures, and moving deadlines have caused some members of Congress to question the cost-benefit potential of US participation in such a high-cost, long-term project with relatively uncertain outcomes. Some Senate members have moved to end US funding for the project by next year. With upcoming elections in multiple states and low approval ratings, it is to be seen what direction Congress will go with respect to ITER. (Adrian Cho, Science; ITER.org)

 

 

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October 28, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 24, 2014

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By: Amie D. Moody, Ph.D.

photo credit: MJ/TR (´・ω・) via photo pin cc

Congress

Congressman continues inquiry into National Science Foundation grant decisions

Members of Congress have been known to call out specific grants awarded by government funding agencies that they deem unworthy of the hard-earned tax payers’ dollars. On August 27th of this year, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman, wrote a letter to the National Science Foundation (NSF) requesting “all official documents pertaining to 20 NSF-approved research projects.” Although the Committee has the authority to oversee government appropriations, he cited no specific reason for the inquiry. In a letter responding to Mr. Smith, the senior Democrat on the Committee, Eddie Bernice (D-TX), argued that this is a “fishing expedition, pure and simple.” Her letter voiced concern that the inquiry is jeopardizing the NSF’s merit-review process and mentioned that a media report contained confidential material that should have only been known to Committee members. In response, Mr. Smith stated, “Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest.” But, to what end? Richard M. Jones, American Institute of Physics

 

Health

To beat once more – surgeons successfully transplant “dead hearts”

Historically, the heart was the only organ not used after it has stopped beating. But now a team of surgeons at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia, has successfully transplanted three hearts that had stopped beating for up to 20 minutes. The doctors utilized a machine known as a “heart-in-a-box” to revive a stopped heart, and then flush the organ with a nourishing fluid. Similar tactics are used to improve the success of liver and lung transplants. Although the exact data to estimate how many more lives could be saved with these new protocols, one estimate places that number around 30%. No matter what the exact number is, the ability to save even more lives each year is a great achievement. James Gallagher, BBC News Health

 

Genetics

The oldest man

This week, Nature published an article reporting on the completed sequence from a man who lived 45,000 years ago in Siberia. It is the oldest reconstructed sequence from a modern human. A Russian fossil collector, Nikolai V. Peristov, found the bone in 2008 while looking for mammoth tusks in Siberia. He took it to the Russian Academy of Sciences, where researchers dated the thighbone. They ran the tests twice to ensure they were right. Next, a team of scientists led by Dr. Svate Paabo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology took samples of the bone and found enough DNA for sequencing. Dr. Paabo’s group has made a name for themselves by deriving highly refined sequencing methods, specifically designed to sequence ancient DNA. They published an entire Neanderthal genome in December 2013. These findings add amazing new insight into modern human migration out of Africa, and place a more precise time frame for how long ago Neanderthals and humans interbred (roughly 50K-60K years ago). Carl Zimmer, New York Times

 

 

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October 24, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 21, 2014

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By: Jennifer E. Seedorff, Ph.D.

photo credit: NIAID via photopin cc

Ebola Outbreak – Public Health

In the US, fear spreads faster than Ebola

Ebola is a scary, lethal virus. Luckily, “There’s a reason it’s not everywhere. It’s just not as easy to transmit as people think.” said CDC epidemiologist, Michael Kinzer. So far, the only people to become infected while living in the US are two health-care works that treated the initial patient while he was having severe symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea. In Ebola, the amount of virus in the body is not the same throughout the course of the infection. As the disease progresses, the amount of Ebola virus present in the body and bodily fluids increases dramatically. Since Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids, individuals without symptoms are not contagious despite being infected with Ebola. However, fears of Ebola have led to what some believe to be overreactions, including a cruise ship that was turned away from port or a school that temporarily closed because an employee had traveled on a different flight that used the same airplane as an Ebola infected health-care worker. As Kinzer told the Guinea media this summer, “Ebola’s not transmitted by the air. Fear and ignorance are transmitted by the air.” (Joel Achenbach and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

 

Infectious Diseases

US pauses new funding for controversial virus research

The White House has announced that it is pausing any funding for new Gain-of-Function studies on viruses, like influenza, MERS, or SARS, and has called for a voluntary moratorium on existing research projects. Gain-of-Function studies have been controversial both inside and outside the scientific community. These types of studies seek to understand what kinds of mutations are necessary for a virus to evolve to become more pathogenic or to be more easily transmitted in humans or mammels. Proponents argue that these studies help in pandemic planning and strategies for vaccine development. Opponents argue that these studies are generating viruses that have the potential to cause a pandemic if accidentally or intentionally released from the labs. Concerns have been elevated due to recent concerns over safety at high-level containment research labs. US policy for determining the risk/benefits and approval process for these types of gain-of-function will be evaluated by both the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity and by the National Academy of Sciences over the next year. (Jocelyn Kaiser and David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

 

Cancer Research – Precision Medicine

Cancer Immunotherapy successful in Phase I/IIA clinical trial

Cancer Immunotherapy is a promising precision medicine approach for treating cancer, and was named Science magazine’s breakthrough of the year in 2013.   In a recent study, cancer immunotherapy was shown to be an effective treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of B-cells. This treatment worked well in patients who had failed traditional therapies, including some whose cancer had previously returned even after stem cell transplants. This study reported impressive, durable results six months after therapy, with 23 of 30 patients alive, 19 of 30 in complete remission, and with 15 of 30 receiving no additional therapy. In this particular version of cancer immunotherapy, a patient’s own T-cells were harvested, then genetic bits of information are added to their T-cells to help them recognize B-cells (which are the source of the cancer), the modified T-cells are given back to the patient, and then these genetically modified T-cells hunt and kill the cancerous B-cells. As with any therapy, this treatment does have side effects most, including destruction of healthy B-cells and Cytokine release syndrome, a systematic inflammatory response that can cause a high fever, a drop in blood pressure, and difficulty breathing. This study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and was partially sponsored by Novartis which holds the license to develop this therapy. In July, the FDA designated this engineered T-cell treatment as a “breakthrough therapy” which should help expedite the development and regulatory review of this therapy. (Denise Grady, New York Times)

 

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October 22, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 17, 2014

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By: Thomas Calder, Ph.D.

“photo credit:CDC Global Health via photopin cc

Ebola Outbreak – Public Health

New Ebola Case Confirmed, U.S. Vows Vigilance

Amber Joy Vinson, the second nurse found to be infected with the Ebola virus, was discovered to have flown on a commercial plane the day before showing symptoms. Ms. Vinson had been caring for the Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan, and was therefore exposed to the virus. According to Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, “Because at that point she was in a group of individuals known to have exposure to Ebola, she should not have traveled on a commercial airline.” Family members and flight crew are now being asked to stay home. Ms. Vinson, and the other infected nurse Nina Pham, may have been exposed to Ebola due to insufficient safety gear. To address this issue, the CDC announced changes to the required protected gear used by health workers when caring for Ebola patients in the U.S. The new stringent guidelines require hoods that cover the neck along and the addition of shoe and leg coverings. While there is concern among some of the general public about the government’s response to the Ebola crisis, President Obama provided this reassurance on Wednesday: “I want people to understand that the dangers of you contracting Ebola, the dangers of a serious outbreak, are extraordinarily low, but we are taking this very seriously at the highest level of government.” (Manny Fernandez and Jack Healy, The New York Times)

 

Science Publication and Communication

Copycat papers flag continuing headache in China

An article published in Science last year uncovered dozens of China paper-selling companies. These companies were exposed for fabricating data, adding authors to accepted manuscripts, and selling entire publications. Recently, a similar China-based company was discovered by two computational biologists: Guillaume Filion from the Centre for Genomic Regulation and Lucas Carey from Pompeu Fabra University. These researchers were originally mining Pubmed publication records from 2012-2014 to uncover new hot topics based on commonly used words. From their big data analysis approach, they found 32 papers that were meta-analysis or review articles with, as Filion describes, “disturbingly similar” wording. For example, one paper states, “Importantly, the inclusion criteria of cases and controls were not well defined in all included studies and thus might have influenced our results,” and another paper states, “Importantly, the inclusion criteria of cases and controls were not well defined in all included studies, which might also have influenced our results.” From their investigation, they found these papers originated from a website that sold papers with an impact factor of 2-3 for approximately $10,000. This big data analysis technique may be useful for uncovering other paper-selling companies in the future. (Mara Hvistendahl, ScienceInsider)

 

Science, Religion, and Education

Seminaries awarded $1.5 million to include science in coursework

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is striving to bridge the gap between religion and science by providing $1.5 million in grants to 10 U.S. seminaries with the goal of providing greater science education. According to Jennifer Wiseman, the director for AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, “Many (religious leaders) don’t get a lot of science in their training and yet they become the authority figures that many people in society look up to for advice for all kinds of things, including issues related to science and technology.” The seminaries receiving these grants will engage in a pilot program to incorporate curriculum that includes science educational videos, events, guest speakers, and other science resources. Additionally, AAAS is coordinating with surrounding universities to provide science advisors. This pilot program hopes to educate seminarians and reduce any perceived hostility between scientists and the religious. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, The Washington Post)

 

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October 17, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – October 3, 2014

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By: Bethanie L. Morrison, Ph.D.

photo credit: Xavier Donat via photopin cc

  EBOLA

 

When Ebola protection fails

“Working in an Ebola treatment unit need not be a life-threatening endeavor. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it myself and it wouldn’t be ethical for me to counsel other people to do it,” says epidemiologist Daniel Bausch of Tulane University, who worked in Ebola units in Guinea and Sierra Leone at the beginning of the Ebola outbreak. Health care workers who have survived an Ebola infection have recently shared their stories with Science and all admit to being unsure of the source of their infection. Interestingly, the health care workers do not think they were infected by patients in the Ebola treatment units (ETUs) where safety precautions are the most stringent, but most likely in the emergency rooms and clinics. They all say that the greatest danger lies with patients whose status is unknown.  According to Senga Omeonga, an Ebola survivor and doctor working in Sierra Leone, “a lot of them were lying when they came to the hospital,” he says. “They didn’t even tell you they’re having fevers. They’d say they fell down or were on a motorbike or someone pushed them or they went to work and passed out.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently running 3-day training sessions for health care workers. These sessions are meant to closely mimic the environment where the workers will be helping patients in Africa. Thus far, nearly every trainee has had a breach of protocol. However, it is better to catch these breaches now, in the U.S., instead of in the middle of a treatment center in Africa.  (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

 

Could Ebola virus become ‘bioterrorist threat’?

While lawmakers and experts are investigating the possibility of the weaponization of Ebola, they say it is more likely that the highly pathogenic virus will spread through accidental and crude means. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says that any real attempt at weaponizing Ebola would “have to be a state thing. I don’t think you’re going to get some rogue person being able to do that.” While it is not impossible, enhancing the pathogenicity of Ebola would, “require experts with advanced training and equipment that would be difficult for any but a state actor to obtain,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. On the other hand, it would not take a lot of sophistication to spread the disease via infected suicide bomber, who would be willing to put him/herself in danger in order to harm others. Scott Gottlieb, a physician and former Food and Drug Administration official is confident that appropriate government agencies “have thought through these scenarios and are well aware of the risks.” (Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, Fox News)

 

A Liberian doctor is using HIV drugs to treat Ebola victims. The NIH is intrigued.

At least 15 people infected with the Ebola virus in Liberia have been given lamivudine, and all but 2 of them have survived, according to Dr. Gorbee Logan, the doctor administering this controversial therapy. Lamivudine is an effective long-term drug used to treat people with HIV. According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it is not unbelievable that this treatment would be effective. Lamivudine is a type of nucleoside analog, a class of drugs that alter the replication ability of certain viruses. Dr. Fauci said that as of yet, scientists at the NIH have not been able to see a reaction between lamivudine and the Ebola virus, but they will try it again, “to see if there’s even slight activity against Ebola.” If so, the NIH may be prepared to move to trial stage, according to Dr. Fauci. The most positive thing about lamivudine is that is an agent already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can therefore be much more easily distributed than a newly developed agent. In the meantime, Dr. Logan is concerned that the trial stage is too lengthy of a process. He is trying to save lives and is willing to try any therapy he thinks may work in order to do so. “Our people are dying and you’re talking about studies?” Logan said to CNN. “It’s a matter of doing all that I can do as a doctor to save some people’s lives.” (Elahe Izadi, The Washington Post)

 

 

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October 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 26, 2014

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By: Bethanie L. Morrison, Ph.D.

photo credit: Rusty Russ via photopin cc

Ebola Outbreak – Public Health

The Ebola Emergency — Immediate Action, Ongoing Strategy

The Ebola epidemic is still expanding, according to newly published epidemiological data from the World Health Organization’s Ebola Response Team. An increasing epidemic, one that may in fact become endemic, will lead to a disintegration of an already dysfunctional health care system in Africa. The WHO has estimated that there will be 20,000 cases of Ebola infection by early November.  Hospitals will become overwhelmed with Ebola patients and will no longer be able to care for those afflicted with malaria, HIV/AIDS, cancer, or even for women who have complications during childbirth. However, the current Ebola epidemic must take center stage in respect to where our efforts lie. There is a critical need for a massive increase in the current response levels. The questions asked are whether an outbreak of this magnitude could have been prevented and how? According to the report, the slow response time is to blame for letting the epidemic get out of control. Meanwhile, now that the response and relief efforts are underway, it is critical to analyze the response to this outbreak in order to prevent another one from occurring. There is a need for better surveillance, sharing data in real time, and rapid action based on available information. In general, we must learn to work more effectively. (Jeremy J. Farrar and Peter Piot, The New England Journal of Medicine)

 

Ebola Outbreak – Regulatory Policy

FDA OKs siRNA Ebola Drug

Dr. Richard Sacra, a U.S. physician infected with the most recent Ebola virus, has been given a new therapeutic not yet approved by the FDA called TKM-Ebola. TKM-Ebola is a short-interfering RNA (siRNA)developed by Tekmira that has thus far only been tested in animals, but has been given the green light by the FDA for “compassionate use” as medication in more patients. The compassionate use of this therapy cannot be considered a valid clinical trial, however, and the vetting and thorough FDA review must continue in order for TKM-Ebola to be approved for more widespread use in Ebola patients. (Kerry Grens, The Scientist)

 

Federal Science Policy

U.S. asks universities to flag risky pathogen experiments

New U.S. government policies released this week call for scientists to flag experiments that employ the use of any of 15 select toxins or dangerous microbes. White House officials are said to be open to engaging in a dialogue with the public regarding the possibility of expanding the list of agents, as some researchers are concerned that certain pathogens have not been included, such as those causing MERS and SARS. The new policies insist that researchers receiving federal funding notify an institutional review board if they are working with one of the 15 pathogens in experiments referred to as dual-use research of concern (DURC). DURC studies may include enhancing the virulence potential of a pathogen while at the same time studying mechanisms by which to kill the organism. The institutional committee then has 30 days to report the activity to the federal funding agency, and 90 days to submit a risk mitigation plan. These new policies are updated from those released in March 2012 and February 2013 identifying the 15 select agents and the need to screen DURC experiments. Research universities believe that the new regulations that include the tight deadlines overlap with other previously released regulations and are unnecessary. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) claims that the new policies are an “additional and important component” of an overall framework, said Andrew Hebbeler, assistant director for biological and chemical threats in the OSTP. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

 

 

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September 26, 2014 at 6:00 am

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