Science Policy For All

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Science Policy Around the Web – July 10, 2015

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Picture source: Pictures of Big Data

Big, big data

Big Data: Astronomical or Genomical?

Computing power increases according to Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors in central processing units (CPUs) double every two years or so. However, this exponential increase in computing power has been humbled by rapid growth in the amount data being generated by DNA sequencing, and was observed back in 2012. As a consequence, more and more computing resources are needed to handle and store genome data. A recent report in PLoS Biology has argued that genomic data production will exceed the storage resources of that needed to handle both Twitter and Youtube combined. They estimate that in 10 years time between 100,000 and 2 billion human genomes will be sequenced. To store all this data would require about 2-40 exabytes (or 2-40 million terabytes), including storing all sequencing errors and preliminary analysis.

The need to be able to store large quantities of genomic data is a realistic challenge, and a number of groups around the globe are working towards that goal. The authors of the PLoS Biology paper did not consider any major improvements in data compression technologies in their analysis but various groups (here, here and here) are in the process of developing such technologies. One group claims to be able to compress genomic data by ~9,500 fold, compared to the current National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) standard used to store genomic data (.sra) 46.9 fold. Europe has set sight on a continent-wide computing cloud to facilitate data sharing between research groups in various scientific disciplines. As well, stemming from the January 20th announcement of the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has started to draft how it will approach the vast amount of genomic data that PMI will require. Many angles are being worked on to handle the ever growing volume of genomic data and a coordinated effort might be beneficial to streamline the efforts towards this. (PLoS Biology Perspective)

Chemical regulations

New U.S. rules on helium sales said to stifle competition

Two years ago, Congress passed the Helium Stewardship Act designed to establish a competitive market for federal helium by switching from having the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sell off helium at a fixed price to instead selling it at auction. A recent congressional panel showed the opposite effect of this new law. The number of companies buying from the reserve fell by 50% (from 8 to 4). Helium is a indispensable noble gas for many types of technology and scientific research, including cooling MRI scanners, industrial leak detection systems, and telescope lenses. As a byproduct of natural gas drilling, the U.S. accrued a vast reserve of helium from the 1960s onward. In a natural geological formation near Amarillo, Texax about 1 trillion liters of helium gas is stored. In 1996, U.S. Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act ordering BLM to sell the helium reserve. This law forced BLM to sell helium at a price that would recoup the amount the government had spent in accumulating the gas. This selling strategy led to wasteful use of helium, as a 2010 report from the National Academies’ National Research Council pointed out. Furthermore, BLM had a mandate that lasted up to the point when all the $1.3 billion was recouped. That would have happened in September 2013, leaving about 370 billion liters of helium stored away. This led Congress to pass the Helium Stewardship Act. Of the 12 companies that sell refined helium, only four refine the helium themselves and these four companies used the auction to limit their competitors access to federal reserves of helium by being willing to pay premium (+52% compared to non-auction prices) for the gas. At the end of the day, the various companies and researchers are the ones that suffer most as some people pay as much as $40 per liter of liquid helium. The helium reserve is expected to last another six years. The next BLM auction is scheduled for August 18th. (Adrian Cho, ScienceInsider)

Antibiotic resistance

Bacteria-Eating Viruses Could Be New Ally Against Superbugs In A ‘Post-Antibiotic Era’

Bacteriophages are viruses that are capable of infecting and killing bacteria in a host-specific manner. While it is dangerous for humans when a virus jumps the species-barrier – as was the case with the swine flu (H1N1 pandemic) and SARS (whose origin is thought be to be the masked palm civet) – it is extremely rare for viruses cross kingdom-barriers, as would be required for bacteriophages to infect humans. In light of the increasing reports of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the World Health Organization has classified this threat as a growing global health problem. An alternative approach to tackling antibiotic resistance would be combat bacteria with its natural enemies: bacteriophages. After all, they are been extensively used and studied in biomedical science. A few European countries already use bacteriophages to combat bacterial infections, but they are not authorized as a medicinal product. Physicians would like to see regulatory agencies allow them to use phages on a single-patient basis, whereas pharmaceutical companies’ ultimate aim is to achieve marketing authorization in the European Union. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) held a workshop on the therapeutic use of bacteriophages on June 8th. The EMA emphasized that the efficacy and safety of phages in a clinical setting need to be shown first before any further recommendations for approval can be given, similar to established treatment methods. This is not the case for bacteriophage therapy at the moment for which very few randomized controlled clinical trials have been conducted to date. Nevertheless, the EMA is looking forward to gathering more robust evidence on the value of bacteriophage treatments and to further discussing the scientific and regulatory aspects relating to the biological characterization of the phages. Pharmaceutical companies are encouraged to engage in early dialogue with EMA by applying for scientific advice through which they can receive further guidance on how to develop their products. (Ben Hirschler, Huffington Post)

Quick note!

Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, has been nominated to become the first female president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 10, 2015 at 10:31 am

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