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Archive for October 2015

Science Policy Around the Web – October 31, 2015

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By: Courtney Pinard, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Novartis AG via photo pin cc

Reproducibility

How Prevalent is Scientific Bias?

Scientists and clinicians conducting clinical trials must abide by rigorous standards to safeguard against biases. Biomedical animal research has not been held to the same standards, and advocates of robust science have argued that this lack of scientific rigor is why more than half of pre-clinical studies are irreproducible. A recent study published at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. shows that animal researchers are not using the same standards to prevent bias in study design. Such standards include 1) using randomized trials to prevent scientists from, for example, assigning unhealthy animals to the control group to boost a drug’s effect on the treatment group; 2) ensuring that researchers are blinded when accessing outcomes of an experiment; 3) calculating the correct sample size before starting an experiment; and 4) disclosing any conflicts of interest. The authors of the study examined 2500 papers published between 1992 and 2011 on drug efficacy, and the results were dismal. Only 30% of papers analyzed outcome in a blinded manner, 25% stated randomizing animals to groups, 12% included a conflict of interest statement, and less than 1% of papers reported calculating the needed sample size in advance. When the authors looked at whether institute quality or journal impact factor predicted bias, they found no correlation. The U.K. study is one out of many studies on the topic of scientific rigor that have resulted in growing concern from scientists and the public about irreproducible results in pre-clinical biomedical research.

According to an NIH commentary published last year, the reasons for why scientific bias in animal research is so prevalent are complex and have to do with the attitudes of funding agencies, academic centers, and scientific publishers. Authors of the commentary, Francis Collins and Lawrence Tabak, discuss these attitudes: “Funding agencies often uncritically encourage the overvaluation of research published in high-profile journals. Some academic [centers] also provide incentives for publications in such journals, including promotion and tenure, and in extreme circumstances, cash rewards.”

Given the continuing budget restraints, and Congress’ awareness about the reproducibility problem, national funding agencies have started to act. The NIH, for example, organized a workshop with over 30 basic/preclinical science journal editors to put together principles and guidelines to enhance research rigor and reproducibility. One such principle is “Transparency in Reporting”, and includes the bias safeguarding standards described above. Strengthening pre-clinical biomedical research will only occur when scientists and policy makers at funding agencies, academic institutions, and journals work together to put these principles into practice, and acknowledge that the “publish or perish” attitude rampant in the scientific culture needs to change. The situation and solution was described succinctly in a recent Nature Editorial on cognitive bias: “Finding the best ways to keep scientists from fooling themselves has so far been mainly an art form and an ideal. The time has come to make it a science.” (Martin Enserink, ScienceInsider)

Big Data

Proposed Study to Track 10,000 New Yorkers

A new proposed longitudinal study will attempt to monitor thousands of households in New York City over the span of decades. Information will be gathered in intimate detail about how people in these households lead their lives, including information about diet, exercise, social activities and interactions, purchases, education, health measures, and genetics. This ambitious project is called the Kavli Human Understanding through Measurement and Analysis (HUMAN) project, and aims to quantify the human condition using rigorous science and big data approaches to understand what makes us well and what makes us ill. According to project leaders, existing large-scale data sets have only provided detailed catalogs of narrow aspects of human health and behavior, such as cardiovascular health, financial decision-making, or genetic sequencing. By measuring the feedback mechanisms between biology, behavior, and our environment over decades, researchers believe that that much more will be understood about how these factors interact to determine human health over the life cycle. For example, according to articles written by scientists in support of the project, the new data could measure the impact of cognitive decline on performing activities of daily living, on family members and caregivers, and on healthcare utilization or end-of-life decisions. A further goal of the project is to provide data to policy makers in order for them to develop evidenced-based public policies.

Anticipating privacy and cybersecurity concerns inherent in such an invasive study, Kavli HUMAN project researchers have established a Privacy & Security Advisory Council, comprised of members in the private, public, and academic sector. The Advisory Council includes bioethicists and patient privacy advocates. In addition to establishing the Advisory Council, project leaders conducted an opinion survey of diverse group of Americans asking whether they 1) think the study should be done, and 2) if they would be willing to participate. The results of the survey suggested that nearly 80% think that the study should be done and more than half were willing to participate. When questions arise about the ethics of collecting such information, Kavli HUMAN project researchers publicly argue that corporations already track Americans’ spending habits, location, and use of technology, and that “people’s data can be better used to serve them, their communities, and society.” (ScienceInsider, Kelly Servick)

Nutrition and Cancer

A Diet High in Red Meat and Processed Meat Increases Risk for Colorectal Cancer

The World Health Organization International Agency for Research (IARC) announced on Monday that eating too many processed meats are cancer-causing and eating too much red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Red meat is defined as all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as “beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat,” and processed meat is defined as meat that “has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” The IARC reviewed 800 studies that looked at the association of cancer with consumption of red or processed meat in people around the world, of diverse ethnicities and diets. Results of this analysis revealed that the positive association between red and processed meat consumption and cancer was strongest for colorectal cancer. The Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, estimates that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat. Studies show that meat processing techniques and cooking this kind of meat at high temperatures can lead to the formation of carcinogenic chemicals, and that these compounds appear in parts of the digestive tract. Specifically, the agency said its experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Red meat was not as strongly associated with cancer as processed meat. Some public health experts criticized the bravado of the IARC announcement. In response to public inquiries, they have published a FAQ page where they state that smoking and asbestos are more likely to be causal for lung and other types of cancers. The announcement did not mark a new discovery, since the original report has been out for several years; it was meant to attract public attention and help countries looking to WHO for health advice. According to the director of IARC, “these findings further support current public-health recommendations to limit intake of meat.” (NPR; Anahad O’Connor, New York Times)

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October 31, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 27, 2015

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

Drug pricing

After the price gouging by Turing, competitor announces it will offer $1 pill

Martin Shrkeli became infamous after he became CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals and skyrocketed the price of a Daraprim pill, used to treat toxoplasmosis, from$13.50 to $750, a price hike of over 5000%! At that price, the Infectious Diseases Society of America had estimated that it would cost $336,000/year to treat a patient with toxoplasmosis. Turing acquired marketing rights for Daraprim from Impax Laboratories in August for $55 million; though it had initially been made and sold by GlaxoSmithKline for $1 a pill. The United States has no price control on medicines even though in they are common in Europe.

This move by Shrkeli and the news that other drug makers have bought the rights to old, cheap medicines that are the last resort for serious diseases subsequently raising prices has not only angered patients and physicians. It has triggered government investigations, heavy scrutiny by the media and a plunge in biotech stock prices, as well as becoming a political talk point in the upcoming election to fight “price gouging”.

However, there is a new player in the field. Imprimis Pharmaceuticals announced that it can make a ‘close, customized version’ of Daraprim for about $1 per pill. A current caveat is Imprimis’ formulation itself is not FDA approved, and can only be used when prescribed by a doctor for a particular patient. Imprimis CEO, Mark Baum, released the following statement that “Imprimis is forming a new program called Imprimis Cares which is aligned to our corporate mission of making novel and customizable medicines available to physicians and patients today at accessible prices.” (Maggie Fox, NBC news)

Infectious Diseases

Yersinia pestis has been plaguing humans for over 3000 years

In a recent article published in Cell, Rasmussen et al. published that the plague-causing bacteria Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) DNA was found in human teeth from Asia and Europe dating from the Bronze Age or ~2500-5000 years ago. This is well before any record of plague. These scientists examined over 100 human skeletons and found that the teeth in seven tested positive Y. pestis DNA. The oldest skeleton was 5783 years old! The authors suggest, “plague may have shaped early human populations.” Their data implies that Y. pestis did not become the flea-borne mammalian pathogen it is today (by acquiring the ymt gene), until sometime in the first millennium BC, well before the historically recorded plagues. (Simon Rasmussen, et al, Cell and James Gallager, BBC News website)

Global Health/Infectious Diseases

Interview with Margaret Chan, director general the World Health Organization

On October 14, 2015, Kai Kupferschmidt, a contributing correspondent for Science, had the opportunity to interview the director general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan.  The previous week was the first week that there was not a single new case of Ebola reported. This Ebola outbreak has killed over 11,000 people in almost two years.

During the course of the interview, two discussed many aspects of the current outbreak, including the lack of an initial response and how critical it is to get proper resources to those who need most. She stressed that countries impacted by an outbreak should report the disease while countries not affected by the outbreak should not impose their own trade or travel restrictions other than those recommended by the WHO. Chan has said to the WHO’s member states, “If you want WHO to be strong and fit for purpose, keep your promises. Put your money where your mouth is.”

Unfortunately, the WHO reported two new cases of Ebola in Guinea only two days after the interview on October 16, ending a two-week period in which no new cases had been detected across West Africa. The WHO does not consider a region Ebola-free until 42 days, or double the potential incubation time, have passed without a new case. The other two countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone, which were also heavily impacted by this outbreak, are further out from their last reported cases: Liberia is has met the deadline and is considered Ebola-free, while Sierra Leone is over halfway through the 42 day time period. The 42-day guideline may in fact be just that ‘a guideline’ as the Ebola virus has been isolated from seminal fluid 82 days after symptom onset. (Kai Kupferschmidt, Science)

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October 27, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 20, 2015

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By: Patricia Kiesler, Ph.D.

Photo source: pixabay.com

Biomedical funding

A new, life-or-death approach to funding heart research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is changing the way it finances heart research. The federal agency that funds the majority of heart research in the U.S. will “focus resources on efforts with real-world impact and life-or-death implications.” This new practice is the result of the realization that many studies are never published. Although this is an issue becoming apparent in several fields of medicine, it is now well documented in the area of heart disease. In 2013, Dr. Michael Lauer, a cardiologist and the newly appointed deputy director for extramural research at the NIH, and his colleagues at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that NHLBI spent 2 billion dollars funding 244 clinical trials between 2000 and 2011. But only three out of five of these studies were ever published. The others were either not published or published after unacceptable delays. Other reports have also discovered high rates of non-publication. Starting next year, NHLBI will require that the results of all its funded research, even those not published, be reported in a federal database (clinicaltrials.gov). “If the government is going to pay for these studies,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the NIH, “the public should be able to see the data.” In addition, there will be a change in the design of large clinical trials with a new emphasis “on so-called pragmatic trials that look for outcomes that matter, like reductions in heart attacks or deaths.” The institute is turning down smaller studies and insisting the costs of large studies go down. For example, to reduce costs, researchers will be required to make use of available clinical data on their patients collected during routine care. This new plan will reduce the cost of a typical clinical trial to less than 10 million dollars, an amount well under the 50 million or much more that the institute has paid for a trial. (Gina Kolata, New York Times)

International environment and energy policy

Australia approves controversial Carmichael coal mine

Last Wednesday, the Australian government approved the construction of what is going to be one of the world’s largest coal mines. The Carmichael mine project owned by Adani, an Indian group, and worth about 12 billion dollars will expand an area in the Galilee Basin in Queensland comparable to seven times the size of Sydney Harbor. It will produce 60 million tonnes of coal per year for export, mainly to India, and will include rail infrastructure. The project was first proposed in 2010 and approved in 2014. In August of this year, a Federal Court temporarily blocked the project based on concerns raised by critics that the habitat of two Australian reptile species would be threatened. The animal species under concern were the Yakka Skink lizard and the Ornamental Snake. The approval now granted to Adani by the Australian government is subject to 36 strict conditions the group must meet in order to proceed with mining. For example, they must commit to protecting and improving 31,000 hectares of special wildlife habitat and must commit funds (0.75 million dollars) for research on conservation of threatened species in the area over the next ten years. But the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) did not agree with the approval of the mine and railway project. “To approve a massive coal mine that would make species extinct, deplete 297 billion liters of precious groundwater and produce 128.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year is grossly irresponsible,” said ACF president Geoff Cousins. (BBC News)

Biosafety regulations

CRISPR tweak may help gene-edited crops bypass biosafety regulation

A new DNA-free genome editing technique in plants was published this week in Nature Biotechnology. Geneticist Jin-Soo Kim of Seoul National University and his team modified the popular CRISPR/Cas9 technique so that it can edit plant genomes without introducing foreign DNA into cells. Traditionally, researchers use Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium that has the ability to introduce genetic material into a plant cell, to shuttle the Cas9 enzyme and its guide RNA sequences (the components necessary to delete genes) into plants. Instead of using this gene-shuttling approach, Kim and his team used solvents and reported the successful deletion of selected genes in tobacco plants, rice, lettuce, and thale cress. “In terms of science, our approach is just another improvement in the field of genome editing. However, in terms of regulations and public acceptance our method could be path-breaking, “ said Kim. He believes the resulting plants may be exempt from current regulations affecting genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Other researchers have also achieved similar results with different genome editing techniques introducing protein complexes called TALENs directly into plants or using nanoparticles to aid protein delivery. But it is unclear what regulatory authorities will do; plants that lack foreign DNA might still be classified as GMOs. The European Commission is currently debating regulations to incorporate the latest biotechniques. In the U.S., the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service currently regulates plants edited with Agrobacterium while plants edited in other ways have bypassed regulations. But this may change. Last July, the White House initiated a multiyear review of federal regulations on agricultural biotechnology. (David Cyranoski, Nature News)

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October 20, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 16, 2015

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By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.

Photo source: pixabay.com

Nutrition Policy

How agriculture controls nutrition guidelines

Every five years, the nutritional recommendations that help Americans make healthy dietary choices are revised to reflect the current state of nutritional and health science. Although only 4% of Americans adhere to these Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), DGAs have a huge impact. For example, physicians routinely use them to advise patients on how to stay healthy. DGAs also affect billions of dollars in government spending as they inform meal content for military personnel, those helped through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and US children who are served public school lunches.

The process of updating DGAs involves compiling the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a panel of scientific experts who distill thousands of scientific studies into an advisory report, with comments from the public and input from federal agencies. For the first time, the 2015 DGAC report recommended that sustainability of food sources be considered in the final 2015 DGAs. Sustainable diets are defined by the United Nations as those with “low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and healthy life for present and future generations,” and the recommendation to consider sustainability is within the statutory bounds of the DGAC as defined in 1990. Proponents of the sustainability language emphasize the importance of considering the environmental impact of food production, and argue that nutrition is influenced by agricultural practices; for example, wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef is generally more nutritious than farm-raised fish or corn-fed beef. Opponents argue that sustainability is beyond the scope of the DGAC and accuses the committee of writing the recommendations from a political perspective rather than a scientific one.

Unsurprisingly, considering the extent of government funding that is influenced by the DGAs, the 2015 DGA revision process has come under constant attack by the agricultural industry. On Wednesday October 7, during a meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture, chaired by Representative Mike Conaway of Texas, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack conceded that the 2015 DGAs were not “…the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability” as a “matter of scope,” and that sustainability would not be a factor in the 2015 DGAs. The sustainability debate will likely resume in 2020 when the DGAs are next revised.  (James Hamblin, The Atlantic; Kathleen Merrigan et al., Science; Sandra Hassink & Steven Stack, The Hill)

Scientific Funding

Neuroscientist team calls for a National Brain Observatory

A team of six influential neuroscientists has proposed the creation of a national network of neurotechnology centers that they’re calling the National Brain Observatory. The same group of scientists, dubbed “the Kavli six” due to their affiliation with The Kavli Foundation, is credited with drafting a proposal to map the activity of the living brain that would become President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative announced in Spring 2013. The first round of BRAIN funding was awarded mostly to individual labs or multi-lab research teams. In an opinion article published October 15 in the journal Neuron, the Kavli six call for the next step in the BRAIN initiative: a coordinated effort to synergize the discoveries made by the multiple individual laboratories funded by BRAIN. The scientists believe that the technological challenges facing neuroscience necessitate large investments in advanced technologies that are beyond the scope of any individual lab or research institution, similar to the national telescopes and particle accelerators used in the fields of astronomy and physics.

The goal of the National Brain Observatory proposal would be to expand shared access to four types of expensive technologies required to map the brain’s structure and activity: 1) large scale electron microscopes, capable of magnifying objects by more than 10 million times; 2) fabrication facilities to develop nanosized electrode systems capable of recording the activity of large networks of neurons with minimal damage to brain tissue; 3) new optical and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facilities to monitor the dynamics of neural circuits in real time; and 4) advanced electronic storage and computational data mining to collect and analyze vast amounts of data.

The Kavli six suggests that such technologies could arise from existing Department of Energy (DOE) National Labs around the country, such as Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, or they could be housed in newly created facilities. The group argues that the experimental challenges being undertaken by the BRAIN Initiative, and by the neuroscience field at large, can only be surmounted through “highly coordinated, multi-investigator, cross-disciplinary efforts” such that a National Brain Observatory would permit. (Emily Underwood, ScienceInsider)

Genetic Testing

The crowdsourcing site that wants to pool our genomes

Two geneticists have launched a new crowdsourcing science project to collect the genetic data generated by direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme.com. The project, called DNA.LAND, is a non-profit website created by Drs. Yaniv Erlich and Joe Pickrell and is affiliated with the New York Genome Center of Columbia University. DNA.LAND urges potential users to “Know your genome; Help science,” and the platform is designed to give participants ancestry and relationship data, as well as help to fill in missing sequences of DNA overlooked by DTC companies through a method called imputation. Although some of these functions are already provided by DTC companies, these companies compare users’ genetic information within individual company databases, and customers may miss out on connecting with relatives who have had their genetic information sequenced elsewhere. DNA.LAND compiles genetic information from multiple DTC companies, thus creating a dataset that is beyond the scope of anything amassed to date. To the extent to which users consent, scientists can then use this vast pool of genetic data to tackle research questions that require very large sample sizes. The project’s founders also envision linking DNA.LAND data with that from other sources, such as from activity tracking devices like Fitbits, or from social media activity that might indicate someone’s sleep patterns or mood fluctuations.

Privacy concerns are obvious. The site’s consent form contains minimal medical and legal jargon to describe guidelines that the founders say should lessen many of the privacy risks, such as not sharing personal identification information or genetic data with third parties without the user’s explicit permission. Still, the form contains the important caveat that the chance of a confidentiality breech is not zero and sharing data of this type carries inherent risks. Indeed, in 2013, Dr. Erlich and colleagues authored a study that revealed that men who have had their full genomes sequenced could be re-identified based on short DNA sequences found on their sex chromosomes.  To help ease users’ privacy concerns, both of DNA.LAND’s Principal Investigators adopt a “skin in the game” philosophy by making their own personal genomes publicly available. They are not alone; by October 15, less than a week after the site went live, nearly 6,000 genomes have already been uploaded. (Ed Yong, The Atlantic; Erika Check Hayden, Nature; Andrea Anderson, GenomeWeb)

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October 16, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 14, 2015

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

photo credit: Cell Culture via photopin (license)

Reproducibility in science

Researchers do not bother verifying the identity of their cell lines

Despite being warned years ago, more than 50% of biomedical researchers admitted in a recent survey that they do not confirm the identity of their established cell lines. The confirmation process includes validating the species, tissue-type, and gender of the cells. Even those researchers that had confirmed their cells were labeled correctly, most did not use the ‘gold-standard DNA-based testing method.’ Contaminated cell lines waste valuable research funds and undermine research findings.

Unfortunately, not much has changed in cell line validation or cell culture practices in the past decade. Dr. Leonard Freedman, president of the Global Biological Standards Institute, said that “while support for change is strengthening, the scientific community has still not embraced cell authentication as an expected part of the research process.” He pointed to the issue of how cell identity directly contributes to data irreproducibility and encourages journals to refuse to publish manuscripts unless the authors describe how they validated cell lines used. Nature conducted an analysis from 60 manuscripts and found that only 10% of authors had validated their cell lines. Following that dismal finding, Nature and its associated research journals implemented a policy in May requiring “authors to check the cell lines used against a database of almost 500 known misidentified cell lines and to provide details about the source and testing of the cells.” (Declan Butler, Nature News)

Biomedical funding

NIH continues to reduce award funding

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) released a notice at the beginning of October, that continuing awards for fiscal year 2016 will be funded at a lower level than previously committed (approximately 90%). However given the NIH has been slated for a billion-dollar increase, the agency may return funding to 100% of the awarded amount after a final appropriation.

Global health

Polio remains endemic only in Pakistan and Afghanistan

On September 25, 2015, the World Health Organization announced that polio is no longer endemic in Nigeria, leaving wild poliovirus only spreading in Pakistan and Afghanistan. July 2015 marked one full year without a new case of polio being reported in Nigeria, taking the country and Africa close to being ‘certified polio-free’. This was a monumental accomplishment for Nigeria because as recently as 2012, Nigeria was credited for over half of all polio cases globally. The WHO wrote: “Eradicating polio will be one of the greatest achievements in human history, and have a positive impact on global health for generations to come.” (Sona Bari, Oliver Rosenbauer, and John Butler, World Health Organization News Release)

Genetic testing and scientific patents

Australia rules a genetic sequence is not a “patentable invention”

On October 6, 2015, Australia’s highest court ruled that “an isolated gene sequence is not a ‘patentable invention.’” This ruling mirrors legislation established in the United States, South America, and most of Asia. The European Union and Canada allow human gene patenting if the biological material has been isolated by a ‘technical process’.

In 2010 a cancer survivor, Yvonne D’Arcy, challenged patents over the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes held by the Melbourne-based Genetic Technologies and the U.S. firm Myriad Genetics. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are human genes that encode tumor suppressor proteins, which can help repair damaged DNA and contribute to the stability of a cell’s genetic material. If mutations are present in one or both of these genes, the cells are more likely to divide and rapidly change, significantly increasing a woman’s likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancers. Myriad had used the genetic information to develop diagnostic tests over which it and its international counterpart had a monopoly.

This decision allows hospitals in Australia to be free to perform genetics testing, perhaps even to develop their own assays, without many consequences from large biotech companies. However the biotech community feels differently and views the ruling as ‘blow to innovation’ while predicting the decision to have ‘significant negative impact’ on new and innovative medicines and innovations. Though Myriad’s patents have expired, the company estimates it had spent more than $1 billion over 25 years to develop its facilities and resources and the tests used on 2 million patients. (Leigh Dayton, ScienceInsider)

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October 14, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 9, 2015

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By: Rebecca A. Meseroll, Ph.D.

Refugee scientist relief policy

Program launched to help refugee scientists find opportunities in Europe

Many thousands of Syrian refugees have fled to Europe in recent months, and among those in crisis are scientists who had to leave their research behind. The European Commission has demonstrated its support for these refugees by launching an E.U.-wide program called Science4Refugees, which will allow refugee scientists to be matched with universities and other institutions that have volunteered to be a part of this initiative. The program will provide an online portal where refugees who are interested in jobs, internships, or other training opportunities at the institutions can get more information about available vacancies and upload their CVs. Refugee job seekers will not receive preferential treatment and must compete for available positions with all other applicants, but this approach should at least help increase refugees’ awareness of which institutions have vacancies and provide a centralized online location to apply for these jobs. Science4Refugees joins the ranks of other initiatives that provide relief for displaced scientists in individual countries around the E.U., including established programs such as the UK’s Council for At-Risk Academics, which was instituted in the 1930s to help scientists persecuted by the Nazis and the Scholars at Risk program in the Netherlands, as well new programs in Germany and France. (Tania Rabesandratana, ScienceInsider)

Women in STEM

‘Pretty Curious’ campaign criticized

In an effort to increase the involvement of women in science and technology, a London-based energy company, EDF Energy, recently started a program to foster interest in STEM among girls ages 11-16, but the initiative has garnered some objections because of its name – Pretty Curious. Some critics of the name bristle at the implication that girls place a lot of importance on being pretty and liking pretty things, and thus need to be tempted with prettiness to be interested in STEM. Others object to the use of ‘pretty’ as an adverb, as they believe it suggests the girls will be only fairly interested in STEM topics, rather than truly passionate. EDF Energy states that they chose the name intentionally to “to challenge the stereotypes around personal appearance that are often applied to girls,” as well as to draw attention to their campaign. Pretty Curious plans to hold workshops in the UK to teach girls technological activities and techniques, such as coding and 3D printing, as well as introduce them to various female role models who have succeeded in STEM fields. Whether the program will overcome its early controversy and help increase representation of women in science remains to be seen. (Chris Woolston, Nature)

Animal population control

New vaccine provides hope for single-shot animal birth control

A recent study by Li et al. in Current Biology presents a new method of vaccine sterilization for both male and female mice, which may be a promising technique for cheap, easy, and long-lasting animal population control for pets and wildlife. Pet populations tend to be controlled by spaying or neutering, but these procedures require anesthetization and can be costly. Animal contraceptive vaccines that are currently in use, such as GonaCon, have been used to sterilize deer and other wildlife, and work by eliciting an immune response to gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH), which is required for production of sex hormones. These vaccines often lose their efficacy after several years if administered in a single dose. The new vaccine developed by Li et al. contains an anti-GnRH antibody encased in an inactive viral shell and uses the animal’s muscle cells to generate more antibodies, rather than the immune system. Because muscle cells are long-lived, they continue to produce antibody in over a long period of time without the need for a booster. When injected into muscles of the mice at a high enough dose, the vaccine conferred long-term infertility to the animals, although there is a two-month lag between injection and the onset of infertility, as the muscles ramp up production of the anti-GnRH antibody. Future study will be required to minimize the lag time and test the technique in animals other than mice before it can be used to control captive and wild animal populations. (Sarah C.P. Williams, Science)

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October 9, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – October 6, 2015

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By: Eric Cheng, Ph.D.

Photo credit link: pixabay

HIV drug policy

Treat all people living with HIV, offer antiretrovirals as additional prevention choice for people at “substantial” risk

A new policy change recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) will remove previous limits which suggested that patients wait until the disease progresses instead of treating HIV infection when first detected.  The previous WHO guidelines limited treatment to people whose immune cell counts had fallen below a certain threshold. This new change could prevent more than 21 million deaths and 28 million new infections by 2030, which is in line with the United Nation’s aim of ending the AIDS epidemic in the same year.

“Everybody living with HIV has the right to life-saving treatment. The new guidelines are a very important step towards ensuring that all people living with HIV have immediate access to antiretroviral treatment,” said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS. However, this move would lead to an increase in demand for antiretroviral therapy, which generally are given as a three-drug cocktail aimed at reducing the risk of the virus developing resistance. This increase in demand will lead to an increase in required financial support from both charities and governments.  Currently, almost $22 billion is currently spent on AIDS in poor and middle-income countries, half of it contributed by donors, according to UNAIDS. Even before the new guidelines were announced, the necessary funding was predicted to rise to $32 billion by 2020. “Now the question becomes how quickly will governments take up this recommendation,” Matthew Kavanagh, senior policy analyst for the U.S.-based Health Global Access Project. (WHO News Release)

NIH Leadership

Selection of Dr. Michael Lauer as the Deputy Director for Extramural Research, NIH

Michael S. Lauer, M.D, the Director of the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences (DCVS) at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) has been selected to head the extramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As the director of DCVS, Dr. Lauer provided leadership in basic, clinical, population, and health services research on the causes, prevention, and treatment of cardiovascular diseases in one of the largest extramural divisions at NIH with a $1.7 billion portfolio. Now as director of the Office of Extramural Research, Dr. Lauer will oversee policies and guidelines for extramural research administration within NIH and in the biomedical research community.

Dr. Lauer will be replacing Sally Rockey, who resigned in June to accept a position at a new nonprofit called the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. (Francis S. Collins, NIH)

International Scientific Community

Scientist says researchers in immigrant-friendly nations can’t use his software

A German scientist, Gangolf Jobb, writes that he will be revoking the TREEFINDER licenses of researchers in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom on October 1 because of the countries’ immigration policy. He wrote “Immigration to my country harms me, it harms my family, it harms my people. Whoever invites or welcomes immigrants to Europe and Germany is my enemy,” and added, “Immigration unnecessarily defers the collapse of capitalism, its final crisis.”

TREEFINDER is a computer program that computes phylogenetic trees from molecular sequences. It is commonly used to build diagrams to show the most likely evolutionary relationship of various species. Fortunately there are alternatives to this software, which has not been updated since March of 2011. Researchers in the United States had already been banned from using the program in February to protest “a small rich elite there that misuses the country’s power to rule the world. The USA is our worst enemy.” (Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceInsider)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

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