Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – November 17, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Public Health Policy

In Reversal, Death Rates Rise For Middle-Aged Whites

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) entitled: Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, reported an increase in mortality among middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women of the United States. The authors of the paper, Anne Case and Angus Deaton are economics professors at Princeton University and Deaton was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in poverty. Despite being an expert in this area of research, his most recent findings leave many questioning the veracity of his and his co-author’s findings.

Historically, minority populations in the United States have suffered disproportionately from increased mortality that many have accepted as either a result of reduced access to healthcare resulting in poor health and uncontrolled co-morbidities or poorly controlled chronic diseases leading to premature death. Rarely had white non-Hispanics been associated with poor outcomes when compared to these groups and this study is one of the first to highlight the disparity among white non-Hispanics as well as to demonstrate that it is a mortality rate that has spiked dramatically between 1999-2013.The authors state, “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a turnaround [during this time period].”

The authors suggest that perhaps the U.S. economic downturn that occurred around that time more severely hit the white non-Hispanic population because they were not accustomed to such a decline in lifestyle. The authors further imply that perhaps this caused an increase in despair and/or depression that provoked prescription drug use that lead to drug abuse. Indeed, the number of unintentional, overdose deaths as a result of prescription pain relievers has quadrupled since 1999. This study certainly brings attention to a new population group experiencing disparity in health and warrants further investigation into this area to validate their findings and intervene to slow and/or reverse this tragic trend in mortality among white non-Hispanics. (Rob Stein, NPR)

Drug Policy

Painkiller Abusers Aren’t Completely Abandoning Prescription Opioids for Heroin, Study Shows

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, revealed that opioid abusers aren’t necessarily abandoning ship for heroin. Interestingly, after surveying 15,000 patients at drug-treatment centers in 49 states, the study found that opioid abusers are using the two drugs simultaneously as availability allows. Senior investigator, Theodore J. Cicero said, in an interview “[that] [f]luctuating between heroin and prescription opioids could potentially make it difficult for abusers to dose correctly, trying to match the high of one to the other.” This would most likely increase the adverse events associated with opioid use.

Consistent with opioid use on the rise, the authors found that 42% of patients surveyed in 2014 reported they had taken prescription opioids and heroin within a month of entering treatment. This finding is up 23.6% from 2008. The study also identified a likely drive to increase heroin use—the lower cost and availability was a driving factor among prescription opioid users switch to heroin. Understanding why people find these drugs so appealing and monitoring their prescription use will hopefully provide better avenues for drug abuse prevention and treatment. (CJ Arlotta, Forbes)

Basic Science Research

Three science ideas you’ll be hearing more about in 2016

There is important work being done in the basic sciences. If your work is judged to be a “breakthough,” you could stand to be awarded $3 million dollars—twice the dollar amount of the Nobel Price! The goal of the Breakthrough Prize award is to highlight the hard and important work being done in the basic sciences and translate these findings to the public. Three of the breakthrough ideas are highlighted below:

  1. Neutrinos are the key to understanding the unknown universe

Two of the researchers awarded the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, Arthur B. McDonald of Queen’s University in Canada, and Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo in Japan were recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that neutrinos can oscillate. Given the ability of neutrinos to oscillate goes against dogma because it assumes neutrinos have mass—whereas the Standard Model of physics suggests neutrinos have zero mass. It is an evolving thought that neutrinos are the key to understanding the known universe.

  1. Understanding the human genome can lead to new treatments for diseases

The Breakthrough Prizes in the Life Sciences went to researchers, John Hardy of the University College London, and Helen Hobbs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Their individual findings discovered inherited mutations that cause early onset Alzheimer’s disease (Dr. Hardy) or genetic variants that alter levels and distribution of cholesterol and other lipids (Dr. Hobbs) throughout the body. These findings highlight that the better we understand our genome the better we can prevent and treat disease.

  1. Exploring ancient DNA can help explain the origins of humans

Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology won a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for pioneering the sequencing of ancient Neanderthal DNA. The implications from his work are that we would be able to compare Neanderthal genomes to modern humans and detect specific genetic changes that resulted in the first modern humans.

“Breakthrough Prize laureates are making fundamental discoveries about the universe, life and the mind,” Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner said. Technology is changing our view of the world advancing science at an exponential pace. Yet, the biggest questions remain to be answered. It is an exciting time to be doing science. (Dominic Basulto, Washington Post)

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

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 17, 2015 at 9:00 am

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