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Archive for January 2016

Science Policy Around the Web – January 29, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Infectious Diseases

Zika virus, linked to microcephaly, on the rise

Only a few months after the scare of the epidemic of chikungunya, a new virus has emerged on the American continents: Zika virus. The same mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that transmits yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya also transmits this virus. In the last few months of 2015, there was a sharp rise in babies born with microcephaly. Some hospitals in north Brazil that would only see five cases a year, now see over 300 in six months. These babies have abnormally small heads and the rare neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. The rise in cases with microcephaly strongly correlated with an ongoing Zika virus epidemic in the north of Brazil. In addition, the Zika virus RNA was found in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses. It is thought that women who were pregnant became infected with the virus and gave it to the growing fetus. Nevertheless, there is no formal evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly. In fact, a recent report argues that a surge in finding birth defects is too blame for the increase in microcephaly cases in Latin America.

This has not stopped local and global authorities from warning people of the potential dangers of the Zika virus. Brazil has suggested its citizens in affected regions not get pregnant. The CDC in the U.S. is warning tourists who go to regions where Zika virus is epidemic to take precautionary measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. On Thursday, January 28th, the World Health Organization declared an International Emergency. The last International Emergency was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Another complicating factor is the expected increase in number of mosquitos due to El Niño. Although most people who get infected by Zika virus will remain asymptomatic, some people will have a rash and a fever. As of now, no cure exists. Therefore, researchers around the world are rushing to develop a vaccine. Two potential vaccines against West Nile virus, after being repurposed for Zika, might enter clinical trials as early as late 2016, according to Dr. Fauci (NIH/NIAID) [recent talk by Dr. Fauci on emerging viruses]. But caution about a quick cure is warranted, as it might take several years before a Zika vaccine becomes commercially available. (, BBC News website)

Mental Health

One step closer to understanding schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a debilitating psychiatric disease that affects over two million people in the United States alone. Often, this disease start in the later years of adolescence and early adulthood. Delusional thinking and hallucinations characterize schizophrenia, but the drugs available to date to treat schizophrenia are blunt and frequently patients stop using them because of their side effects. Although this new study will not lead to new treatments on the short term, it does provide researchers with first firm biological handle on the disease.

The developing human brain is the site of neuronal pruning. At first, the brain makes an excessive number of connections between neurons, but as children grow-up, most of these redundant connections are lost. You can see this a competition between the connections where the strongest ones survive. Neuronal pruning in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning, happens in adolescence and early adulthood. The latest finding, published in Nature, found that people who carry genes that accelerate or intensify that pruning are at higher risk of developing schizophrenia than those who do not. To date, no specific genetic variant has been found, although the MHC locus seems a likely candidate. Indeed, one specific gene in this locus, C4 gene, is involved in neuronal pruning. The C4 gene produces two products: C4-A and C4-B. Too much of the C4-A variant results in too much pruning in mice, which would explain why schizophrenic patients have a thinner prefrontal cortex. These new findings help to connect the dots better than ever before. Next up will be developing drugs that regulate neuronal pruning and the hope is that this will create a new anti-schizophrenia drug. (Benedict Carey, New York Times)

Technology

Analyzing body chemistry through sweat sensor

A small, wearable sensor has been created that can measure the molecular composition of sweat send those results in real time to your smartphone. The sensor, a flexible plastic patch, can be incorporated into wristbands. Several labs have been working on developing such a patch for a while, but most of them could only detect one molecule at a time. This newly developed flexible printed plastic sensor can detect glucose, lactate, sodium, potassium, and body temperature. When the sensor comes in contact with sweat an electrical signal is amplified and filtered. Subsequently, the signal is calibrated with the skin temperature. This latter step is essential, according to the lead scientist Jarvey. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to your smartphone. Because the sensor is not as accurate as a blood test, rigorous testing for medical use is therefore required.

The potential of this new devise is that it can tell, for instance, a diabetic patient in real-time that his blood sugar levels are too low or too high. It could also tell someone who is physically active that she is getting dehydrated and needs to drink water. One particular project could greatly benefit from this new technology. Last year President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to enroll over one million American participants and follow them over time to learn about the biological, environmental, and behavioral influences on health and disease. After all, most disease still do not have a proven means of prevention or effective treatments. Having technology such as this that can monitor and track basic biological data in real time could provide a wealth of information to researchers looking to make connections between a person and a disease.  (Linda Geddes, Nature News)

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January 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 26, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

CTE Research

Debate over chronic traumatic encephalopathy research funding

In response to growing concerns regarding the long-term health consequences of repeated head injuries like those sustained by football players in the National Football League (NFL), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded almost $16 million to science researchers working on projects that will address this issue. Specifically, much of this money will go towards investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. Currently, the only means for studying CTE is to examine brain tissue postmortem, however there is a clear need for the ability to diagnose and treat individuals while they are still alive. Some of the focus of the research will be to develop ways in which CTE can be diagnosed and studied while patients are still living.

While there is an obvious need to fund research focusing on CTE, funding for these projects does not come without controversy. For a number of years, the NFL criticized researchers for raising alarms about the dangers of repeated head trauma in football players. In 2012 the NFL granted the NIH $30 million in an “unrestricted” agreement for CTE research. However, it was recently reported that while the funds from the NFL will support research on traumatic brain injury, the money will not be used to fund studies focusing on CTE. The NIH has made statement indicating that this decision was not made by the NFL; however, ESPN reported the NFL funding will not support CTE studies because a portion of the money was awarded to Dr. Robert Stein at Boston University, a researcher who has who has publicly criticized the NFL for its negligence surrounding CTE. In 2014 Dr. Stein filed a declaration opposing the NFL’s lawsuit settlement with thousands of former players and accused the NFL of hiding the link between football and CTE. Both the NIH and the NFL argue that ESPN’s report is inaccurate. What does not appear to be under debate is whether the CTE research will be funded at all, the NIH has promised to fund the studies with other federal funds. (Ken Belson, New York Times)

Medical devices and drug policy

New devices may help with the opioid abuse epidemic

Opioid abuse is currently a significant public health concern in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention each day 44 people die from prescription opioid overdoses and rates are among the highest on record. Additionally, in 2013 it was estimated that 2 million Americans over the age of 12 had either abused or were dependent upon opioid painkillers.

In a move to possibly decrease overdose and abuse rates, an advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year voted 12 to 5 to recommend approval for a new medical device that avoids the need for prescription opioids in pill form. The new device, known as Probuphine and developed by Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, is a small rod the size of a matchstick that can be implanted into a patient’s arm. The rod dispenses daily doses of a common painkiller known as buprenorphine. Importantly, Probuphine allows for the delivery of buprenorphine for months at a time. In addition to possibly serving as a safer means to deliver painkillers to patents, the new device may also serve as a means to treat those with opioid addiction. For example, an addict could be implanted with the device and receive daily does of buprenorphine for several months as the individual weans themselves off other opioids. Although an opioid itself, buprenorphine has been shown to help individuals overcome withdraw from other opioids. The device would also make it easier for individuals to manage their addiction by decreasing the number of trips to reach treatment and the implant may also help curb the illegal sale and use of buprenorphine.

Although the FDA recommended approval, others remain skeptical. Although buprenorphine can help addicts decrease and eventually stop their use of other opioids, buprenorphine can be addictive on its own. In fact, emergency room visits for buprenorphine related incidents have been on the rise. Additionally, other concerns include the need that opioid addicts have to adjust their does of buprenorphine over the course of recovery, usually starting with high doses and decreasing their dose over time. (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

Astronomy discoveries

Nine Planets Again?

Two astronomers, Konstatin Batygin, professor of planetary science and Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of technology, announced last week that they had evidence that there may be a ninth planet in our solar system. The new planet is believed to be the size of Neptune and to take approximately 15,000 earth years to orbit the sun. Although the planet has not been observed directly, Batygin and Brown inferred its existence based on gravitational pull of the planet on six small objects beyond Pluto. In their recent publication entitled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” in the Astronomical Journal, Batygin and Brown present detailed evidence and arguments for the existence of the new planet. Based on their calculations, the two astronomers suggest that the planet is at least the size of Earth, but likely much bigger. Furthermore, their work suggests that the new planet is somewhere between 20 to 100 billion miles from Earth. Brown is not new to finding novel planets-like bodies, in fact in 2005 Brown identified Eris which was a big as Pluto. This identification raised questions about what should be considered a planet, and in response the International Astronomical Union decided that Eris should not be considered a planet. Pluto also lost its planetary status. The race is now on for the first scientist to directly observe our possible new ninth planet. (Eric Hand, ScienceMag)

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January 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

Big Tobacco-like behavior from Coca-Cola

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

photo credit: coca cola via photopin (license)

This story is not a new one. A company develops a product and uses mass media to market the product to people all over the globe. The product becomes a household name. Several years later, scientists discover that the product contains ingredients that are unhealthy and may actually cause health problems. In response, the company attempts to place blame elsewhere, tries to discredit scientific findings, and confuse the consumer. This time, however, we are not describing the Tobacco industry. No, this time it is the soda industry.

Although obesity rates may no longer be on the rise as they were between the years of 1988 and 2000, rates are anything but declining. In 2014 it was estimated that 29 percent of American adults were obese and even a greater percentage were overweight. It will likely not surprise anyone to know that production and consumption of sugary beverages, like soda, have tracked with obesity rates surprisingly well. In fact, soda sales and consumption were at their highest during the years in which obesity rates showed the steepest increase, and now as soda production and consumption have decreased, obesity rates have plateaued. What led to this decrease in soda sales and consumption is likely a mix of several factors. Government agencies implementing “Soda Taxes,” regulations regarding the availability of soda in schools, and the restrictions on marketing towards children have all likely made an impact. In fact, American consumption of full calorie sodas has decreased by 25 percent since the 1990s indicating that these regulations have encouraged consumers to make healthier choices.

However, to counteract consumers’ growing concerns about “cutting calories” (and potentially their products), Coca-Cola, the largest producer of sodas, has recently gone to great lengths to shift consumers’ concerns regarding the obesity epidemic from what they eat to how much they exercise. In August of 2015, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had spent more than $1.5 million on the establishment of what was known as the Global Energy Balance Network or GEBN, a “voluntary public-private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions – based on the science of energy balance – to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity.” When developing the GEBN, Coca-Cola appointed Dr. Steven Blair, a professor of Exercise Science and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, and Gregory A. Hand, Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University as GEBN administrators, and James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Science Center the president of the GEBN. Most shockingly, early on in the establishment of the GEBN, Coca-Cola’s role in appointing the group’s leaders, establishing the mission statement, and funding of the program were hidden from the public. In addition to establishing the GEBN, since 2010, Coca-Cola has gifted more than $21.8 million to scientific research and an additional $96.8 million to other health and wellness partnerships that tote the company’s moto “when it comes to weight don’t worry  about what you eat, focus on exercising”, a statement that no doubt would help hurting soda sales. In addition to teaming with scientists to dissipate the blame on the soda industry for the rise in obesity, Coca-Cola has also spent more than $120 million since 2010 to support other partnerships, including more than $3 million to the American Academy of Pediatrics to launch another website known as Healthychildren.org, and more than 1.7 million to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In addition to the report in the New York Times, in August of 2015, the advocacy group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, released a letter signed by 37 scientists and public health experts accusing the GEBN of “peddling scientific non-sense.” In response to this criticism, in August, the Chief Technical Officer at Coca-Cola released a statement, “I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the [GEBN]. The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise does. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.” He goes on to say that “At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions.”

Despite the denial that Coke attempted to mislead the consumer, as of November 30th 2015, GEBN had been shut down and the home page for the public-private partnership website states “Effective immediately, GEBN is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations. We appreciate the commitment to energy balance that the membership has demonstrated since our inception, and encourage members to continue pursuing the mission “to connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.” In addition, Coca-Cola’s chief science and health officer and cofounder of the GEBN, Rhona D. Applebaum, stepped down from her position. The University of Colorado also stated in November that they will be returning a $1 million grant received from Coca-Cola. The returned money, Coca-Cola states, will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have both stated that their relationship with Cocoa-Cola has been severed.

This situation emphasizes how scientific funding from private sources with an agenda can be of concern to both science and public health. In fact, a recent publication in PLOS Medicine suggested that science funded by large soda companies such as Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association are five times more likely to report no link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain compared to science that does not have a financial conflict of interest. Increased transparency regarding scientific and advocacy funding could be one way in which consumers would be better protected from misguided information in the future. Scientists and medical professionals are already required to declare financial conflicts of interest, however media coverage of privately funded research findings should emphasize the potential bias. Furthermore, public health organizations and advocacy programs, such as the GEBN, must be required to fully disclose funding sources.

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January 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 19, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

Water Contamination

Michigan attorney general to investigate into Flint, Michigan water crisis

Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, announced on January 15, 2016 that he will be conducting an investigation into the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan to assess whether any laws have been violated. “The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life,” Schuette said in a statement. “While everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made, my duty as attorney general requires that I conduct this investigation.”

The water crisis stems from a decision two years ago by the state of Michigan, which had taken over the city’s budget amid a financial emergency, to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This decision was billed as a temporary cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. However shortly after the switch, residents began to complain the water looked, smelled and tasted funny. Later, researchers revealed that the river water was highly corrosive (almost 20 times more corrosive than the water in Lake Huron) and that there were elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Sadly, a Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, announced that records showed blood lead levels in local toddlers doubled or even tripled in some cases since the water switch.

Governor Rick Snyder has already declared a state of emergency and requested that President Obama declare a state of emergency at a federal level. The extra assistance would provide much needed assistance like grants for temporary housing and home repairs as the city deals with damage done to its water system. On Saturday, the President authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to lead the national disaster relief efforts. Additionally, singer Cher is trying to help. She and Icelandic Glacial are combining to donate 181,440 bottles of water to Flint residents. (Jason Hanna, Sara Ganim and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN)

Women in Science

Female engineers receive fewer citations even though they publish in better journals

While gender disparity is not a novel phenomenon in science, certain specialties are worse than others. A recent study that analyzed almost 1 million engineering-related publications showed that while female engineers are published in slightly higher impact journals on average than their male counterparts, their work receives fewer citations. This study used bibliometrics, which is the statistical analysis of written publication patterns. The authors filtered for engineering journals published between 2008 and 2013, resulting in 679,338 articles with nearly 1 million co-authors. In order to assign gender to the researchers, the authors utilized databases of male and female first names originating to the country of the researcher’s affiliation. The results showed that women made up only about 30% across all scientific disciplines and a dismal 20% of the authors on the engineering papers. However, the study also showed that when the main author was a female, that research was generally published in a more prestigious journal (demonstrated by a 2% higher impact factor score). Further, the authors of the study correlated that these papers were cited 3% less frequently than publications from male-led studies. The authors suggest that women scientists could close this gap if they were to collaborate with each other as often as they do with male researchers. (John Bohannon, ScienceInsider and Ghiasi, et. al, PLOSone)

Clinical Trials

Clinical trial goes tragically wrong

Biotrial acknowledged on January 15, 2016 that their phase I clinical trial in France was going terribly wrong. The compound that they were testing is an inhibitor of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that breaks down endocannabinoids in the brain. The drug was aimed to treat multiple disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases, anxiety, and chronic pain. At the time of the initial announcement, there were six male patients in the hospital: one who was brain-dead (and later died), at least three patients may suffer irreversible brain damage if they survive, one other has neurological symptoms and the last was under observation with no noticeable symptoms. MRI imaging has shown “deep, necrotic and hemorrhagic lesions in the brain” of the effected patients.

This trial was authorized this previous summer after successful completion of animal studies, including those conducted in chimpanzees. This phase I trial consisted of 128 previously healthy male and female volunteers ranging from 18-55 years of age. Phase I studies are designed to test safety and tolerability of a drug, as well as how, and how fast, the chemical is processed by the human body. Participants of this particular study group were to receive €1900, which included travel expenses; in return, they agreed to stay at Biotrial’s facility in Rennes for 2 weeks, swallow either drug or placebo for 10 consecutive days, undergo extensive medical tests, and provide at least 40 blood samples.

Ninety individuals were given the drug in varying doses while the others were given placebo. The first of the volunteers began taking the drug on January 7th and the symptoms began surfacing three days later. “The 84 other volunteers exposed to the drug have been contacted,” announced the hospital. Ten of them came in to be examined and did not have the ‘anomalies’ seen in the hospitalized patients. (Martin Enserink, ScienceInsider)

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January 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

UPDATE: Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

West Africa Ebola epidemic

New Ebola case confirmed in Sierra Leone, one day after the outbreak was declared over

A 22-year-old woman in Sierra Leone who passed away earlier this month has been confirmed as testing positive for Ebola. Authorities in the area are now actively engaged in “investigating the origin of the case, identifying contacts and initiating control measures to prevent further transmission,” according to a statement today by the World Health Organization (WHO). This new case comes a day after the WHO officially declared the West Africa Ebola epidemic over. Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO’s Special Representative for the Ebola Response, said yesterday that “we still anticipate more flare-ups and must be prepared for them.” Francis Langoba Kelly, spokesman for the Office of National Security in Sierra Leone, told local radio Friday that country’s level of preparedness is high and there is no cause for concern over the current case. It it hopeful that the country’s preparedness for and (unfortunate) practice in this situation will quickly shut down any possible transmission routes from this case. (J. Freedom du Lac and Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post)

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January 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

West Africa Ebola epidemic

WHO declares Ebola outbreak over

On Thursday, January 14, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) marked the end of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, by declaring Liberia free of Ebola. This declaration means that at least 42 days (two 21-day incubation cycles of the virus) have passed since the last confirmed case of Ebola in Liberia tested negative for the virus twice. The other two countries most affected by the outbreak, Sierra Leone and Guinea, were declared Ebola-free in early November and late December 2015, respectively. This announcement marks the first time that all known chains of viral transmission in these three countries have been stopped. “Detecting and breaking every chain of transmission has been a monumental achievement,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan in a news release. The final cost of this epidemic has been estimated at 11 300 people killed out of 28 500 infected, making it one of the worst international health disasters in history.

While Rick Brennan, directed of emergency risk management and humanitarian action at WHO stated that “today is a good day,” the risk of virus reemerging is a very real threat, and he stressed the need for continued vigilance. Liberia was first declared Ebola-free in May 2015 but has twice encountered new flare-ups of the virus, with the latest in November 2015. The risk of Ebola causing new flare-ups comes from the fact that Ebola can persist in some tissues and bodily fluids of survivors for months, such as in the eyeball fluid of one survivor, and in the semen of some survivors up to a year after infection.

With the outbreak now officially over, scientists and public health officials are looking at what lessons can and should be learned from it. The most important lesson, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and public face of the small US-based outbreak, is the need to strengthen health care systems in low- and middle-income countries. “If there was a system to have recognized and stopped the outbreak that began with the child in Guinea in December, 2013, we might have avoided the explosive outbreaks in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”(Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceMag.org, Erika Check Hayden, NatureNews)

Embryonic Research

U.K. researcher details proposal for CRISPR editing of human embryos

A researcher in the United Kingdom, Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, has proposed using CRISPR genetic editing on embryos to study genes involved in early human development. Dr. Niakan previously applied to the U.K.’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in September 2015 to renew her existing license to use human embryos in research, and to extend that license to include CRISPR editing. This proposal has just come up for review by HFEA, and Niakan met with journalists from the Science Media Centre on January 13th to talk about her research and proposal in advance of any decision. Her research currently uses human embryos that are left over from in vitro fertilization attempts and donated for research. After their use, these embryos are destroyed when they are 7 days old. Niakan hopes to use CRISPR to knock out genes known to play a role in human development when the embryos are single cells at only 1 day old, and study how that affects their development into blastocytes, a 5-day old embryonic structure. While Niakan speculated that research of this type might one day lead to improved treatments for infertility, for the near future her research involves one narrow goal – to determine what specific genes do in blastocytes. Whether or not she will be able to pursue these studies still depends on the near-future decision of the HFEA. (Erik Stokstad, ScienceInsider)

Public Heath Recommendations

Eggs are okay again

The final version of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans was announced on January 7, 2016 in a joint press release from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One of the more interesting points that many have jumped on was the fact that the 2015 guideline does not include a limit to cholesterol intake, and instead just states that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.” Previous guidelines had recommended that Americans restrict their daily cholesterol intake to no more than 300 mg. This new governmental stance on cholesterol is more in line with current research and the findings of other nations. This does not mean that high blood levels of cholesterol are no longer bad – high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol have been clearly linked to heart disease. However, the contribution of foods high in cholesterol (such as eggs) to overall blood cholesterol levels may be overshadowed by the amount of cholesterol produced by a person’s own liver. As such, the amount of cholesterol one consumes becomes an individual’s personal decision based on their own medical history and situation. As with many aspects of health care, personalized nutrition may become the future of nutrition science. (Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post)

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January 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 12, 2016

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By: Tad Davenport, Ph.D.

Photo source: pixabay.com

Biomedical Resources

Funding for key data resources in jeopardy

The goal of science is to push boundaries of knowledge. In a letter to John Locke, Isaac Newton famously wrote about his own discoveries, saying: “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The pace of scientific discovery is accelerating, and the findings accumulate rapidly – this means that the giants whose shoulders we stand on today have never been quite so gigantic nor have they ever grown so quickly.

Increasingly, biomedical researchers rely on curated databases such as UniProt, OMIM, FlyBase and others to rapidly sort through enormous (and rapidly growing) volumes of information. These databases provide digestible, searchable access to descriptions of protein function and interactions, post-translational modifications, mutations associated with disease, and changes in protein and RNA levels during the development of model organisms including fruitflies and zebrafish. These databases are essential for generating hypotheses and designing experiments to understand basic biology and disease mechanisms.

A recent report by Jocelyn Kaiser for Science magazine describes the fiscal challenges faced by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in supporting the maintenance of these databases.  It is estimated that over $110 million or the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget is spent on maintaining these databases, and the cost is likely to continue growing in parallel with rapid expansion of genomic and other data.  To address the long-term “sustainability problem”, leaders of NHGRI have initiated discussions on alternative funding sources and mechanisms, including subscriptions and use-based fees. The enormous value of these databases for scientific progress is difficult to estimate, and every effort should be made to ensure easy accessibility for all researchers. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Vaccine Research

Unfilled Vials – Accelerating and Prioritizing Vaccine Development

Vaccines are a highly cost-effective means of preventing transmission of infectious agents. Unfortunately, vaccine development does not always make fiscal sense for pharmaceutical companies. In order to encourage pharmaceutical companies to take on the substantial financial burden of developing and testing vaccines in human clinical trials, it is likely that public-private partnerships, designed to mitigate the financial risk to companies, will play a critical role.

In a recent Science magazine article, Jon Cohen describes some recently proposed mechanisms for igniting private interest in developing and testing vaccines for pathogens that do not typically impact wealthy nations. One important step toward this goal is generating consensus regarding which pathogens should be prioritized for vaccine development.

Based on a poll of twelve vaccine experts, Science magazine generated its own list of the top ten pathogens that should be prioritized in designing new vaccines. Number one on the list was Ebola Sudan, a pathogen known and feared by many in the United States and other wealthy countries. However, a number of the pathogens on this list are less well-known in the United States (but no less important), including Chikungunya, Schistosoma, and Hookworm.  In ranking the pathogens, the contributors considered the pathogen’s impact on human populations, its transmissibility, its “potential to cause economic and social chaos”, and importantly, the feasibility of developing an effective vaccine (based on the immunity generated by natural infection, or preliminary results from tests in animal models). Cohen’s article enlightens the reader by presenting a balanced review of the challenges of vaccine development and a rational mechanism by which much-needed vaccines might be brought to market. (Jon Cohen, Science News)

The Future of Science

Interviews: Big ideas for better science

In a 2015 year-end interview with Kendall Powell of Nature magazine, four notable scientists made recommendations for how to improve the practice and culture of scientific research.

Jin-Soo Kim from Seoul National University suggests that eliminating the one-directional anonymity of the peer review process and openly crediting reviewers would reduce the potential conflict of interest in which a competing scientist is asked to review a colleague’s paper.

Jean-Baptiste Mouret at the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation, recommends improving the openness and accessibility of computer programs used in research, with numerous potential benefits including better reproducibility and faster scientific progress.

Maria Cristina De Sanctis at the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology in Rome emphasizes the importance of encouraging women in science from the very earliest ages.

And Danielle Edwards from the University of California, Merced recommends instilling more humanity in scientific research by providing a safer, more understanding work environment for people with varied experiences of life and its associated challenges.

These can be thought of as “New Year’s Resolutions” for science. How do you resolve to improve science, and more broadly, the world, this year? (Kendall Powell, Nature)

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January 12, 2016 at 9:00 am